While Clay Matthews does indeed have a history of hamstring problems, the Green Bay Packers star outside linebacker has in fact only missed one game – on Oct. 10, 2010 at Washington – because of the injury that has plagued him throughout his NFL career.
So while Packers coach Mike McCarthy was estimating Monday that the hamstring pull Matthews suffered during Sunday’s 31-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals may sideline the team’s sack leader for “a couple weeks,” it’s possible that this week’s bye will limit the length of time the banged-up Packers will have to live without their defensive leader.
“Clay’s a difference maker. Hopefully, we’ll get good news and hopefully he’ll be back sooner than what we think,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who has watched Matthews register nine sacks this season – tied for second in the NFL behind Houston defensive end J.J. Watt’s 10.5 – to help the Packers to the NFL lead in sacks (28). “Let’s just hope that he heals real quick. Obviously, you’d like to have Clay out there whenever you can have him out there.”
Added outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene: “He’s a fine player. (But) everybody knows that the train doesn’t stop for pretty much anybody. The train keeps truckin’. So we’re driving on. I mean, I have the utmost confidence in Clay and the trainers that they’ll get him back as soon as they can.”
Matthews appeared to initially injure the hamstring during a Mike Daniels sack with 37 seconds left in the first half, limping off the field and missing the final two plays of the second quarter.
He came back to start the second half but departed for good with roughly 10 minutes left in the third quarter when Cardinals quarterback John Skelton eluded him on what appeared to be a sure sack and he limped off the field. He did jog to the locker room after the injury, but McCarthy indicated Matthews’ examination with the medical staff was good-news, bad-news.
McCarthy did not specify which hamstring Matthews injured. Matthews’ history has been of left hamstring problems, and replays did seem to indicate that was the hamstring Matthews injured Sunday. McCarthy also seemed to hint as such.
“The early diagnosis, it may be a couple weeks, but we won’t know until we get further into this,” McCarthy said. “I know Clay doesn’t feel as bad as it was in the past.
“I’ll tell you, if you look at the play, it was a little bit of an awkward pull when he had the quarterback (in his grasp). I think it’s just Clay’s situation was something that led to the position his body was in than just being a repeat in the sense of the same injury.”
There are really two issues facing the Packers when it comes to Matthews’ health. One, after nursing a variety of injuries his first three seasons – in addition to his hamstring problems, Matthews played through a stress fracture in his shin in 2010, for example – he was the picture of health this year, not having to miss any practices in training camp or the regular season.
“I think the sword needs to constantly be sharpened. People need to practice. I feel pretty good about that,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene replied Monday when asked how much of a difference being able to practice every day had made in Matthews. “There’s technique and fundamental germane to this position that need to be worked on a consistent basis.”
Thus, the Packers will have to consider whether bringing Matthews back even at, say, 85 percent, is worth the maintenance and risk that would come with it, or if they should simply sit him for as long as it takes to get him back to 100 percent before the stretch run. While Capers acknowledged that having Matthews in the team’s next two games – at Detroit on Nov. 18 and at the New York Giants on Nov. 25 – would be optimal, he also admitted there’d be risk.
“I think with all these guys you have to be smart. You have to look at the big picture,” Capers said. “But once we get back (from the bye), that big picture turns into a small picture with what’s right in front of you because you don’t want to stub your toe. We know the challenge that we have. Detroit’s got an awful good offense. They’ve moved the ball on everybody.”
The other concern is the Packers’ depth at the outside linebacker position at the moment. While undrafted rookie free agent Dezman Moses took over after Matthews’ injury and the team did activate third-year man Frank Zombo off the physically unable to perform list on Saturday – before deactivating him on game day – Matthews might not be the only outside linebacker sidelined for the next several weeks. McCarthy said rookie first-round pick Nick Perry, who suffered a knee injury Oct. 14 at Houston and hasn’t played since, was getting a second opinion on his knee this week.
Asked on his weekly radio appearance on WSSP 1250 AM in Milwaukee why he sought a second opinion, Perry replied, “I was just trying to make sure that I am fully healthy before getting back on the field. There’s no reason to worry. It’s basically a day-to-day thing right now.” Perry later said the injury is a torn lateral collateral ligament.
Perry had been platooning with veteran Erik Walden at the outside spot opposite Matthews before his injury, and Walden has played well since taking over the spot full-time. Against the Cardinals, Walden had an interception off a deflection, three quarterback hits and made a terrific play to drop Cardinals running back LaRod Stephens-Howling for a 6-yard loss on a screen pass. Capers said Walden played an “outstanding” game.
“I think he’s more focused now, I think his hunger is more evident now,” Greene said of Walden, who earned a defensive game ball for registering eight tackles and a half-sack at St. Louis on Oct. 21. “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. 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.”
Asked about Moses, Greene replied: “He’s getting better. I think he had a couple fine pass rushes, I had him down for a couple quarterback hits in the game. He’s getting comfortable in the position, he’s improving.”
Zombo was ready to play Sunday – “I’ve got no problem putting Zombo in and telling him to go,” Greene said – and after 2 1/2 injury-addled seasons, he could be just what the doctor ordered.
“I think he’s worked back in well,” Capers said. “Frank’s a smart guy, so the mental part of things is not a problem for Frank. I think that he kept himself in pretty good condition, and Frank’s one of those guys who’s normally going to show up where you want him to show up and coach him.
“It will be interesting to see because he worked in more last week and obviously we didn’t activate him, but we felt that we got him more work in case we did activate him. He’ll get even more work now.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 540 ESPN on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.