For the next three to four games, the Green Bay Packers will be forced to replace their defense's best player with a combination of Mike Neal and Nick Perry.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Monday afternoon that the Packers are expected to be without linebacker Clay Matthews for the next month while he recovers from a thumb injury suffered during Sunday's 22-9 win over the Detroit Lions.
Matthews hurt the thumb when he landed awkwardly following a second-half sack of Matthew Stafford. He exited the game and didn't return.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy told reporters earlier Monday that Matthews was visiting a specialist and that he was optimistic his star linebacker wouldn't be lost for the remainder of the season.
"I'm hopeful it's not season-ending," McCarthy said, via the Packers' official site. "I think we're all hopeful, but you have to get all the opinions and make sure you always do right by the player."
ESPN's Rob Demovsky learned that Matthews will likely need surgery to correct the injury.
A one-month timeline for recovery is obviously encouraging news if a season-ending diagnosis was a possibility for Matthews. Based off the calendar, Matthews would be in line to miss games against the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, with a possible return coming in Week 10 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Matthews currently leads the team in sacks with three, which represents a fourth of the defense's total (12) so far in 2013.
Without Matthews, the Packers will turn to Neal, a converted defensive lineman, and Perry, a former first-round pick, to help replace his production.
No player or combination of players can completely replicate what Matthews brought to the table, both in rushing the passer and containing the run. His play-making ability was second-to-none on the Packers defense, and few in the game bring his combination of physical skills and unrelenting motor.
However, both Neal and Perry are coming off what can only be considered a season-best performance against the Lions in Week 5.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers agreed, via Bill Huber of Packer Report.
“The one encouraging thing to me is I think Mike Neal’s made really good strides,” Capers said. “I think you saw him play his best game yesterday. I think you saw Nick Perry play his best game yesterday. That’s the nature of this business.”
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the two outside linebackers played 86 combined snaps and produced 12 hurries, including three sacks. Neal tallied one sack and five hurries, while Perry chipped in his first career multi-sack game and four other hurries.
The two were also instrumental in limiting Reggie Bush and the Lions' running game to just 64 yards and a 3.4-yard average. Neal stretched out an early run before recording a tackle for loss in the second half, while Perry and his 265-pound frame set the edge time after time.
If the two linebackers continue playing that well in the coming weeks, the Packers might not miss Matthews as badly as expected.
Green Bay can also lean on recent experience in playing without its top defensive player.
When Matthews missed four games with a strained hamstring in 2012, the Packers went 3-1 despite allowing 158 rushing yards a game. The defense tallied just six sacks over the four-game stretch, although five came in a win over the Lions during Matthews' first game out.
The Packers will likely need to be better during the next four games, but having a healthy Perry and Neal certainly beats the combination of Erik Walden and Dezman Moses that played in place of Matthews last year. Neither Walden nor Moses is currently on the Packers roster.
Green Bay can also take some solace in the fact that the Ravens, Browns and Vikings lack the kind of elite passing game that could really take advantage of a Packers defense lacking Matthews. Week 9 against the Bears would likely represent the first truly difficult test in terms of matching up in pass defense.
A bigger worry for the Packers might be the lack of depth behind Neal and Perry, who have both battled injuries early in their NFL careers. Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer, two rookies, are now the primary backups at outside linebacker.
One injury to either Neal or Perry, and the Packers could suddenly have major problems getting to the quarterback.
For now, that's not a worry that needs to be addressed.
Green Bay will bank on its new edge-rusher combination staying healthy and building off an encouraging Week 5 performance. Without Matthews for a month, the Packers will need Neal and Perry to hold down the fort over the next three or four contests.