Is a Position Battle Brewing?
by Mike Conklin
December 6, 2012
For most of the season, there has been talk that Greg Jennings' injury and absence from the lineup may be costing him a lot of money when it comes time to negotiate a new contract.
The opposite may be true for Clay Matthews.
Matthews has missed the last three games due to a hamstring injury, but his presence has been sorely missed on the field. If anything, the Packers know now more than ever that he is the cornerstone of their defense.
Having already established himself as one of the best pass rushers in the league, Matthews elevated his game this year against the run as well. There was no better evidence of that than what we saw earlier this season.
The Packers defense showed what it could do to stifle a premiere running back when Matthews led the charge against Arian Foster in Houston. Against a fired up defense that had something to prove, Foster only managed 29 yards on 17 carries, and Matthews set the tone early and often in that game.
Fast forward to last week's game against another premiere running back. The Packers defense once again had something to prove, after having been embarrassed by the Giants the last time they took the field. This time, Adrian Peterson dominated the defense. He collected explosive gains of 82, 48, and 23 yards en route to a 210-yard day.
There is no way to know how much of a difference a healthy Clay Matthews would have made in that game, but the other part of the equation was that the Packers could not generate much of a pass rush again with his presence in the lineup.
In the last two games, the Packers as a team only have one sack. After the first half of the season when Matthews was setting the tone with his nine sacks, the Packers led the entire league in that category. Matthews is the engine that makes the defense go, and the Packers have been fortunate to play a couple of inferior divisional opponents without him.
In theory, the benefit of having a veteran miss time is that a young player gets a chance to develop with more playing time. Without an established bookend outside linebacker across from Matthews, this is an opportunity for a player to step up and run away with that job.
Early in the season, the Packers were trying to give that job to their first round draft pick, Nick Perry. The jury was still out on Perry but his season ended prematurely due to a wrist injury that landed him on season-ending injured reserve.
Even while Perry was in there, he was splitting time with Erik Walden. It seemed like Walden was really starting to emerge as the best of the bunch, but his play has been uneven in recent weeks. Dezman Moses has received more playing time than ever in the last few weeks, and even Frank Zombo has been worked into the mix. Here is a look at how these three players have done since Clay Matthews has been out of the lineup:
Erik Walden: Walden has played in 161 of a possible 196 snaps (82%). He played nearly all of the snaps against the Lions and Vikings, but ended up splitting time with Frank Zombo during the Giants game. Looking at the cumulative ratings for those three games, Pro Football Focus rated Walden as the worst player on the Packers defense. His weakest area during that period was rushing the passer, although he was able to pick up two sacks and two quarterback hurries (no quarterback hits).
Dezman Moses: Moses has played in 173 snaps (88%). He played every snap against the Giants, and most of them in the other two games. He was rated as an average player by Pro Football Focus during that span. He wasn't rated as poorly as Walden when rushing the passer, although his statistics ended up being similar: two sacks, two quarterback hits, and two quarterback hurries. He was able to produce a turnover when he forced a fumble against the Lions.
Frank Zombo: After spending the first half of the season on the PUP list, Zombo is bringing up the rear in the snap count, having tallied 57 snaps (29%). In his limited action he did not make much of an impression. He received slightly negative reviews from Pro Football Focus, and he was not much of a factor in the pass rush. He was able to notch one quarterback hurry. Zombo seems clearly behind the other two players in the pecking order.
Walden is a curious case. Earlier this season, it looked like he was blossoming into the player the Packers hoped he could be when they picked him up off of the NFL scrap heap when injuries mounted in 2010. He had several explosive plays, and was beginning to look like he could be a factor rushing the passer. He had five pressures in the game at Indianapolis, and even won game balls for his performances against St. Louis and Arizona. Bob McGinn, the dean of the Packers beat, even called for the Packers to re-sign Walden at one point.
The Packers knew they would need to lean more heavily on Walden after Matthews injured his hamstring, but Walden's play has not been as impressive the last month. There have been long stretches where he has been neutralized in the pass rush, and his glaring error when he missed a tackle on Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw turned a six yard gain into a game defining 59-yard explosive play.
Dezman Moses has probably benefited the most from Matthews' absence. He has been steadily growing into the role, and his effort and determination stand out on film. While he still has room to grow, he has been playing fast and hasn't embarrassed himself out there.
"He's not hurting us," said Moses' position coach, Kevin Greene. "He's not drastically costing us in some way. He's making plays."
While that's not exactly a ringing endorsement, it appears that the Packers are comfortable with Moses on the field. And it also brings up the question about what may happen once Clay Matthews returns to the lineup.
Since Matthews last laced up his cleats, Dezman Moses has eclipsed Erik Walden in defensive snaps played, combined quarterback pressures, and turnover producing plays. Is it possible that Moses could pass up Walden on the depth chart after Matthews returns?
Since they typically play on opposite sides, it may be unlikely. The Packers have been known to move players around to suit their needs, however. Clay Matthews has switched sides twice in his four year career. All the options are on the table in Dom Capers' defense.
Since Mike McCarthy seems to be pointing to the Chicago game for Matthews' potential return, this week's game against the Lions may be the last time we see both Walden and Moses on the field for most of the game. If it is any type of audition for future playing time, it will be important for this group of outside linebackers to show up and play well.
Photo Credit: Green Bay Press-Gazette