Fate of the Packers' Season Rests with Clay Matthews and the Defense

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IDecember 7, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 08: (L-R) Johnny Jolly #97, Clay Matthews #52, and B.J. Raji of the Green Bay Packers react after a play during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on September 8, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Another week without Aaron Rodgers has put the fate of the Green Bay Packers' sinking season back in the hands of Clay Matthews and the struggling Packers defense. 

Rodgers, who has missed the better part of the last five games, will miss another Sunday due to his improving but yet-to-be-cleared collarbone. Despite Rodgers practicing during each of the last two weeks, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy officially ruled him out against the Atlanta Falcons on Friday.

Matt Flynn will start instead.

With Green Bay's season firmly in the balance, a beleaguered defense must now find a way to finally put a Rodgers-less team on its back and deliver a win. Anything less could make the final three games—even if Rodgers eventually returns—a lost cause.

Matthews, who spoke with Bleacher Report to help promote Gillette's Precision Play of the Week campaign, understands the challenge ahead and readily admits defeat in previous attempts. 

"There are times when we'll have to be out there longer, or we have to make a play for our offense," Matthews said. "It's something we're accustomed to. That's part of the game. Unfortunately, we haven't been picking up our end of the bargain."

Dec 16, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) talk with outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) before the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.  Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

That final part might be an understatement. 

Since Rodgers' injury on the first series of a 27-20 loss to the Chicago Bears on Nov. 4, the Packers defense has allowed an average of 29.4 points, 439.8 total yards and 185.2 rushing yards. All three statistics rank in the bottom five of the NFL since Week 9. 

The result has been a five-game stretch without a win for the once 5-2 Packers.

Now 5-6-1, Green Bay finds itself one and a half games back of the Detroit Lions with just four games left on the 2013 schedule. 

While many assumed Rodgers would be back in time for Sunday's tilt with the Falcons, team doctors still don't feel confident enough in his collarbone's healing to clear him to play in a live game.

Flynn, who led the Packers to just six first downs and 126 total yards in a 40-10 throttling by the Lions on Thanksgiving, will make his second straight start. 

Matthews said there was growing optimism in the locker room that Rodgers would play this week, but it wasn't to be. 

"The reality is we've put our confidence in Matt Flynn right now," Matthews said. "He's who we're rolling with, and he's going to give us the best opportunity to win ballgames. It's not like we could have exhaled. We're still going in to win a ballgame."

With Rodgers under center through the first seven games, the Packers found themselves ranked in the top five in points (28.9, third), yards (438.9, second), first downs (161, fourth) and third-down percentage (46.4, third).

Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Flynn have produced precipitous drops across the board. Points (16.4), yards (344.4), first downs (93) and third downs (25.4) are all down significantly over the last five games. 

The regressions on third down (down over 21 percentage points) and in the red zone (50.0 percent touchdowns with Rodgers, 40.0 without) have forced the defense onto the field more, and in most cases, have caused the Packers to play catch up. 

"I think (it hurts) anytime you lose your team leader, and someone who means so much on game day in terms of putting up points," Matthews said. "It doesn't just affect the offense but the defense as well; how long we are on the field, if we are playing from ahead or behind. It affects everyone."

Matthews' analysis is spot on. 

With Rodgers healthy, Green Bay's defense played an average of 60.7 plays and were on the field for an average of 28:03. Over the last five games, those two numbers have jumped to 70.8 plays and 34:59 time of possession. 

The Ripple Effects of Aaron Rodgers' Injury
With Rodgers (First 7 Weeks)Without Rodgers (Last 5 Weeks)*
Opposing No. of Plays60.770.8
Opposing Time of Possession28:0334:59
*Rodgers played one series vs. CHI

The Packers have also been playing from behind regularly.

Since Rodgers' injury, Green Bay has fallen behind by at least a touchdown in the first half of all five games. In four of the five, opponents have held a lead of at least 10 points. 

Losing Rodgers can't be entirely blamed for the defense's collapse, however. The quarterback position doesn't tackle, blitz or cover. 

And he certainly doesn't stop the run. 

Maybe no aspect of the Packers' defensive regression has been as surprising or severe as the drop-off against the run.

Once ranked in the NFL's top five, Green Bay's defense is now allowing 185.2 rushing yards per game since Rodgers' injury. And over the last two games, the Packers have given up 473 yards on the ground. Only the Chicago Bears have allowed more. 

What has caused the decay of the run defense over the last month and a half? Matthews believes there are a combination of factors currently working against the Packers. 

"There's not one thing we can point out," Matthews said. "There's been a lot of outcries to the tackling, players and play-calling. But ultimately, it's a combination of all those."

Celebrating has been at a premium for the Packers defense.
Celebrating has been at a premium for the Packers defense.Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

From a player's standpoint, the problems appear to be a collective effort. 

"It stems from everything from technique to tackling to not being in the right position," Matthews said. "Ultimately, everyone has to take care of their responsibility. We've shown that before, we've done that. And that's what is disappointing."

Tackling has been a clear issue. 

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Packers have already missed 97 tackles this season, or better than eight a game.

At its current rate, Green Bay will miss almost 130 tackles in 2013, which would set a new high mark under Dom Capers. For comparison's sake, the Packers only missed 68 tackles in all of 2012. 

Matthews has six of those 97 missed tackles this season. 

But don't expect the Packers outside linebacker to start pointing fingers at Capers, who has coordinated defenses in Green Bay that have won a lot of games, including a Super Bowl.

As you'd expect, Matthews assigned blame to the players for the recent slump.

"We put it on ourselves when we come up short," Matthews said. "I think that's the right thing to do. Coaches coach and players play, and we're the ones on the field that have to stop that offense." 

The one player the Packers most need to play won't on Sunday. The question is, can Matthews and the Green Bay defense finally put together a performance that picks up the slack and results in a win?

That opportunity arrives when the Falcons step onto Lambeau Field Sunday.

"We're in control of everything that's in front of us," Matthews said. "If we can stay consistent and put it together for four quarters we should have a good opportunity."

Matthews has teamed up with Gillette to support the company's "Precision Play of the Week" campaign. Through Facebook, Gillette invites fans to answer trivia on the prior weekend's biggest plays. Lucky fans who enter can win tickets to see their hometown team, or even a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII. 


    Small-Town Hero Is Draft's Biggest Sleeper

    NFL logo

    Small-Town Hero Is Draft's Biggest Sleeper

    Mike Tanier
    via Bleacher Report

    Report: Jackson Expected to Go in Top 20

    NFL logo

    Report: Jackson Expected to Go in Top 20

    Rob Goldberg
    via Bleacher Report

    Gronk Says He'll 'Maybe' Return in 2018 🤔

    NFL logo

    Gronk Says He'll 'Maybe' Return in 2018 🤔

    Mike Chiari
    via Bleacher Report

    Rodgers Becomes Part Owner in Bucks

    Green Bay Packers logo
    Green Bay Packers

    Rodgers Becomes Part Owner in Bucks

    Adam Wells
    via Bleacher Report