GREEN BAY - Injuries have hit the Packers linebackers hard with Clay Matthews, Brad Jones, Robert Francois and Andy Mulumba all getting injured during Sunday’s game against the Lions.
Matthews broke his thumb on a sack of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and will miss an extended period of time while he recovers.
Matthews has a team high three sacks and twenty-two tackles this season. His importance to the defense goes beyond the numbers. Head Coach Mike McCarthy put it bluntly. "I mean Clay Matthews is the best player on our defense but this is pro football and we've been down this road before," McCarthy said.
One important difference during Matthews’ latest absence is the emergence of converted defensive end Mike Neal. Packers’ defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Monday he felt Mike Neal had his best game with the Packers on Sunday. Neal and his teammates think they're ready to fill the void left by Clay Matthews’s absence.
"I just need to bring the energy,” Neal said. I’m not trying to mimic Clay. I'm not Clay. I'm Mike Neal. I'll be able to play how Mike Neal plays and that's the biggest thing."
McCarthy echoed that sentiment saying he’d like Neal and second year linebacker Nick Perry to focus on stacking upon the success they experienced last week. "I really just want them to focus on playing the way that they've been and build what they did against Detroit. Mike and Nick it was their best performance to date," McCarthy said.
The linebackers won’t be the only players trying to fill the void for Matthews. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels has faith the defense is up to the task of replacing their top player. "He was knocked out of the lineup last year and we still played very competitive football without him so I'm sure he'd say the same thing, next man in and those are guys behind him and next to him can still get the job done," Daniels said.
Even if the next man up can do the job, Neal says that not having Matthews will be taxing on the defense.
"Clay's a guy that can play every single down even if he's tired. That's one of the biggest things for me is knowing that we won't have as much depth at that position trying to get off the field on third down is going to be the biggest thing," Neal said.
There is reason for the optimism amongst the Packers faithful. Matthews missed a month last season with a hamstring injury during which the Packers went three and one.
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