By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA
Green Bay’s offense more diversified while Pettine’s defense starts to come together
GREEN BAY, Wis. – In the NFL, as in life, it’s like the saying goes, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
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Clay Matthews took the season’s first shot – a line drive that broke his nose during Saturday’s “Green and Gold Charity Softball Game” – and survived to tell of it.
Matthews updated his condition later that evening when he tweeted, “Thank you for all the concern and well-wishes. I busted my nose pretty good and will have surgery once the swelling subsides. Thankful as it could have been much more serious.”
Indeed, a broken nose seems a blessing compared to potential eye damage or worse. Talk about taking one for the team, in the name of charity no less.
Matthews’ teammates were impressed.
“Tough guy, because I still would’ve been on the ground,” receiver Davante Adams said Saturday.
I can’t recall the last time anyone called Matthews “tough.” More often he’s described as a “pretty boy” because of the game time he has missed due to a variety of ailments.
In fact, that scary moment Saturday reminded me this wasn’t the first shot Matthews or the Packers’ defense has taken lately.
Members of the media – myself included – have been tough on both the past two seasons for good reason. Matthews hasn’t played like a six-time Pro Bowl linebacker since 2015.
In turn, the defense has been abysmal.
Fortunately, new GM Brian Gutekunst addressed it.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was brought in to implement his “KILL” philosophy – Keep It Likeable and Learnable – while Tramon Williams, Davon House and Mo Wilkerson were brought in to help teach and execute it.
Those salty veterans join a rookie draft class featuring two cornerbacks and a hybrid linebacker with the first three picks.
That has to represent a defensive upgrade.
Nevertheless, so much of Green Bay’s success still comes down to how well (and how often) Nick Perry and Matthews perform.
The Packers’ personnel department has worked overtime this offseason to build a solid defense around its edge rushers.
The team didn’t approach Matthews about taking a pay cut. They didn’t talk to him about moving to inside linebacker. They didn’t force the issue in the draft and select an edge rusher.
Instead, they went all in.
They restated their belief that Matthews and Perry can get to quarterbacks with the right teammates in the right scheme.
It’s an educated gamble based on past performance.
It also bridges the gap between now and the 2019 NFL draft when the Packers, armed with two No. 1 picks, are obliged to select at least one edge rusher on Day One.
Meantime, Matthews and Perry must hold the fort.
Last week, I wrote about the Packers’ “Top 5” priorities going into this season.
Number one was keeping quarterback Aaron Rodgers healthy.
A day later, the Packers signed veteran offensive lineman Byron Bell, a 6-foot-5, 320-pounder who can play guard or tackle.
Bell has 74 career starts and provides insurance on the right side of the offensive line while tackle Bryan Bulaga rehabs and rookie guard/tackle Cole Madison finds his way.
The Bell signing was significant.
So was the addition of veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis, who joins Jimmy Graham and Lance Kendricks to form one of the Packers’ most promising tight end groups in history.
Lewis (6-6, 267) and Graham (6-7, 265) are huge targets. Lewis also is accomplished as both a run and a pass blocker.
Together, they give head coach Mike McCarthy flexibility.
It was obvious in the team’s second public OTA practice. Graham and Lewis worked as a double-tight end tandem lining up in “bunch” formations, the slot and next to the tackles.
All of that suggests McCarthy plans to use them a lot.
The Packers’ fourth priority was conjuring up a pass rush.
To that end, Matthews and Perry hold the keys to the defense.
For his part, Matthews’ stature only grew in the wake of Saturday’s unfortunate line drive and subsequent broken nose.
It wasn’t merely that he was able to walk off the diamond under his own power. It’s that for one scary moment, as the softball caromed off Matthews’ face, this much became obvious: For all the griping about what Matthews hasn’t done the past two seasons, he remains the Packers’ best chance to rush the passer.
For what it’s worth, the Packers’ defense rallied around Matthews and defeated Adams’ offense 10-9.