Packer Report's position-by-position midseason review continues with the linebackers.
It's a good thing the Green Bay Packers emerged from training camp feeling good about their depth at linebacker.
The Packers convened in late July with Clay Matthews and top pick Nick Perry as the starting outside linebackers, with veteran Erik Walden as the top backup and undrafted Dezman Moses being an intriguing prospect. On the inside, Desmond Bishop was the established star, A.J. Hawk the suspect veteran and D.J. Smith looking ready to push for playing time.
Instead, injuries have taken a hammer to the linebacking corps. With Green Bay visiting Detroit on Sunday, Hawk's the last man standing among the starters. Matthews figures to miss a game or two with an injured hamstring. Bishop (hamstring) and Smith (knee) are on injured reserve.
Through it all, this has been the Packers' best position group. Matthews was good last year but spectacular this year. Hawk and Walden are having big-time bounce-back seasons.
-- OLB Clay Matthews: Matthews is one of the great defenders in the NFL, with a practically unmatched combination of strength, athleticism, intelligence, instinct and hustle. After recording 69 tackles, six sacks and 53 quarterback hits, by the team's count, last season, Matthews has 40 tackles, nine sacks and 35 quarterback hits. His 22 "stops" trail only Dallas' DeMarcus Ware among 3-4 outside linebackers, according to ProFootballFocus.com. That stat translates to the Packers' win-loss measuring stick (3 yards or less on first-and-10, less than half the needed distance on second down and any tackle short of a first down on third down). He's missed just one tackle. Grade: A.
-- OLB Erik Walden: Walden made so little impact last season that the Packers felt compelled to take Nick Perry in the first round and hand him the starting job. Playing with a minimum-salary one-year deal, Walden has been terrific, at first in a time share with Perry and now as the every-down sidekick to Matthews. Walden has 36 tackles, one sack and one interception. He's added 17 quarterback hits after recording 30 in a full-time role last season. He hasn't missed any tackles and has been outstanding in coverage. Grade: B.
-- ILB A.J. Hawk: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this has been Hawk's best season in his four years as defensive coordinator. Even while being taken out of the game when Capers turns to his frequently used dime packages, Hawk leads the team with 75 tackles. He's added one sack. He's got 26 "stops" in nine games after recording 28 all of last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Grade: B.
-- ILB Brad Jones: Jones was moved from outside linebacker, where he had no future with the team, to inside linebacker during the offseason. Where would the Packers be without him? In three starts as the full-time inside linebacker, he's recorded 29 tackles, a forced fumble and one sack. He's a hitter against the run and his height makes him an asset in zone coverage. Grade: C.
-- OLB Nick Perry: The first-round pick had 29 tackles and two sacks in six games (five starts) before sustaining a knee injury at Houston and going on injured reserve last week with a wrist injury sustained in the opener. Perry, not surprisingly with his size and inexperience, struggled in coverage. What was surprising is he wasn't a consistent force against the run. However, he didn't miss any tackles. Grade: D.
-- OLB Dezman Moses: Moses, one of four undrafted rookies to make the team, figures to make his first NFL start on Sunday at Detroit. A defensive end at Tulane, Moses made the transition to outside linebacker look smooth – in many ways, the transition was smoother for Moses than it was for Perry. Most of his playing time has come as an extra pass rusher in the bat package (one lineman, four linebackers, six defensive backs). He's got one sack and 10 tackles on defense, along with five tackles on special teams. Grade: D-plus.
-- OLB Frank Zombo: Zombo, who was activated off PUP before last week's game against Arizona but was inactive, will be the one and only backup at the position until Matthews heals. Grade: Incomplete.
-- ILB D.J. Smith: Replacing injured standout Desmond Bishop, Smith started the first six games before sustaining a season-ending knee injury at Houston. He recorded 42 tackles and two sacks, including 10 tackles and his first career sack in the win against Chicago. He's got a nose for the football but sometimes had problems in space, and his lack of height (5-foot-11) made him a target in pass coverage. Grade: C-minus.
-- ILB Robert Francois: Francois hasn't played on defense but ranks second on the team with seven tackles on special teams. Grade: D.
-- ILB/OLB Jamari Lattimore: Lattimore, who got some snaps in the bat package last week, has one tackle on special teams and recovered the onside kick at St. Louis. Coordinator Shawn Slocum pointed to Lattimore as an emerging young leader. Grade: D.
-- ILB Terrell Manning: Manning has two tackles on special teams in four games. The fifth-round pick has big-time speed and could become a key player on the kicking units down the stretch. Grade: D-minus.
Number to note
60: Quarterback hits by the outside linebackers (35 for Matthews, 17 for Walden, five for Perry, three for Moses), an average of 6.7 per game, according to the team's tally. They had 90 last season (53 for Matthews, 30 for Walden, three for Vic So'oto and three for Brad Jones), an average of 5.6 per game.
Position coach Kevin Greene, on Erik Walden: "I think he's more focused now, I think his hunger is more evident now, I think his vision is much improved than it has been. I think you see Erik starting to settle into the position and start to do things instinctively, without even thinking about it – and doing some great things. You're seeing some of the athletic things that he brings to the table. He played off a cut-block on a flare screen and he made a tackle (last week). That can't be coached. That's just an athletic reaction and being a football player. I think he's starting to settle into his position and be more comfortable where he is."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.