Matthews' absence hurts run defense, too

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers rank 13th in the NFL in sack percentage, and they are ranked that high in large part because of outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who has one-quarter of all their sacks.

The Packers rank fifth in the league against the run, and an argument could be made that Matthews has played a significant part in that, too.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Matthews has three tackles for loss on rushing plays in four games this season. That leads the Packers and is tied for 22nd in the NFL. Over the last three seasons, Matthews leads the Packers with 15 tackles for loss on rushing plays, which ranks 20th among all NFL linebackers.

“He can do it all,” Packers defensive tackle Johnny Jolly said. “He's very good against the run and the pass.”

While many view Matthews' loss to a broken thumb -- which is expected to sideline him for “multiple weeks,” according to coach Mike McCarthy -- as a blow to the team's pass rush, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco also recognized the importance of Matthews to the Packers' run defense.

“Clay was a good pass-pusher on the outside in terms of just being athletic and getting some speed and getting around the edge, disrupting the run game a little bit and shooting some gaps and things like that,” Flacco said during a conference call on Wednesday with reporters at Lambeau Field. “The guy they're going to stick in there is going to be a good player, but (Matthews) obviously creates some things and some problems in there that a lot of other players don't.”

Matthews is a sure tackler. He has missed only one tackle this season, according to ProFootballFocus.

When Mike Neal made the conversion from defensive end to outside linebacker this offseason, he studied all aspects of Matthews' game, and his play against the run stood out.

“You have to watch Clay play; he's relentless,” said Neal, who along with Nick Perry will be counted on more heavily during Matthews' absence. “He's so quick that he's able to get into blockers and shed them and make plays. You can blink your eyes, and he's making the tackle. Learning that part of the game from him, he knows where he fits and that allows him to be successful. If you have to mimic anything, it's being able to mimic the way that he knows the game.”

Neal has learned well. In limited playing time, Neal already has two tackles for loss this season, both of which came in Sunday's win over the Detroit Lions. Neal also recorded his first sack of the season in that game, which he called the best of his career.

The Packers have made a concerted effort to get back to the kind of run defense they played in 2009, when they led the league in fewest rushing yards allowed per game. Matthews ranked fifth in the NFL that season, his rookie year, in tackles for loss on rushing plays (with 11, according to ESPN Stats and Information).

“We're going to miss him a lot,” Jolly said. “But the thing is we've got guys who will fill in and play. That's what we prepared for all training camp.”