Role Players Must Pick Up the Sack Slack

LB Dezman Moses (Jeff Hanisch/USP)

Who's being asked to replace the production of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews? Erik Walden, Dezman Moses and Frank Zombo — a street free agent and two undrafted free agents. Those three, with their combined career total of 13 sacks, know the pressure is on.

Dom Capers is a man with an infinite number of plans.

Most of them — like this one — he would have preferred to keep unseen and unused in the back pages of some nondescript notebook.

A few weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator was talking about injuries and the need to not put all of the defensive eggs in one or two baskets.

"If you base it all on one, two, three guys, all of a sudden you lose a guy or two, you're flat done," Capers said. "You have to have enough flexibility if you lose a guy. There's been games where we had to play without Clay Matthews. Obviously, Clay's a big part of our plan and there's a lot of focus on Clay, but you've got to be ready because you never know. You're always one play away."

Little did Capers know at the time that he'd be going into one of the most important and most challenging road games of the year without his best defensive player.

Matthews was ruled out of Sunday's NFC North game at Detroit, and there's no guarantee that he'll be ready for next week at the New York Giants. Being without Matthews for road games against Matthew Stafford and perhaps Eli Manning is a scenario Capers would have rather confined to his doomsday daydreams.

Making matters worse, Capers won't have first-round pick Nick Perry to help ease the pain. So, Capers will have to lean on veteran Erik Walden, undrafted rookie Dezman Moses, untested Frank Zombo and perhaps even fresh-off-the-unemployment-line retread Vic So'oto. Matthews is a three-time Pro Bowler and a former first-round pick. Walden was a sixth-round pick in 2009 who was on the street for a month before the Packers got him in 2010. The others weren't drafted.

"This week is a challenge," coach Mike McCarthy said.

Walden has gone from afterthought with the selection of Perry to a vital cog in the defense. Last year, Walden made almost no impact on the field and got in trouble off the field. He was brought back with a one-year, minimum-salary contract. All of that, plus his first go-around in the offseason program, has led to Walden's solid season. While he has just one sack, he's been an impact performer.

Making his first start at Indianapolis, he broke up three third-down passes, including one to prevent a touchdown. The next week at Houston, he helped bottle up Arian Foster and smothered a third-down screen. The next week at St. Louis, Walden earned a game ball by posting 12 tackles and one-half sack, and showed superb hustle by running down a wide receiver screen in the fourth quarter. He won another game ball two weeks later against Arizona with a team-high four quarterback hits and his first career interception.


Linebacker Erik Walden. Thomas Campbell/US Presswire

"I think he's more focused now," position coach Kevin Greene said during the bye week. "I think his hunger is more evident now. 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."

Walden agrees with Greene that it's been about focus, which came from his legal problems and the not-so-subtle message sent with the selection of Perry.

"Just paying attention to detail, to the little things," Walden said. "Just little things that you weren't doing last season and making sure you don't make the same mistake twice. Be confident, smile through the good and the bad times, and come over here every day and get better at something."

The question is, can Walden perform at a high level without Matthews occupying the thoughts of the Lions' offense?

"Absolutely," Walden said when asked if there's pressure to fill Matthews' void. "Any time a player like Clay is not able to play, I think every player on the defense has to raise their level of play. You just got to make sure you don't go outside of the scheme. Just do your job and make plays when you're in there."

Moses figures to get his first NFL start on Sunday, presumably in Matthews' spot, where he'd go against wily veteran left tackle Jeff Backus. At least Moses has played, getting on the field frequently as an extra pass rusher in the bat package. Capers has made it a point to find ways to get his young players on the field so they'd be ready for situations like this.

"If I was just thrown in the fire, I'm not going to lie, I may be a little more nervous or feel a different way than I do now," Moses said. "Having those reps and being out there with the guys and communicating, it's made it a much easier adjustment."

Moses, who had a sack against St. Louis, played a career-high 42 snaps against Arizona. He had two quarterback hits, deflected a pass as he attacked the quarterback's blind side and blew up a running play in the backfield. That pass rush will be paramount against Stafford and an arsenal of weapons that runs deeper than Calvin Johnson.

"That's what they pay us to do is to get after the passer, to be disruptive, get sacks and hit him a little bit, move him around, knock him off his point," Moses said. "For us, our job remains the same. It's getting to the passer, be relentless and be disruptive."

Zombo, who missed all of training camp and the first nine games because of a hamstring injury, will be the top backup and probably share some snaps with Moses. An undrafted rookie in 2010, Zombo had four sacks and another in the Super Bowl. Last year, however, was ruined by injuries and he got just one sack and played in only five games.

"It's my first game back, so that makes it important, obviously," said Zombo, a native of the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights, Mich., and former Central Michigan star. "This is what I've been waiting for for the last couple of months. I'm looking forward to it, looking forward to going home and looking forward to another opportunity to play football."

Combined, they've got some enormous shoes to fill. Walden has seven sacks in 33 games with Green Bay. Zombo has five in 18 games. Moses has one in nine games. So'oto, who was re-signed this week, has one in 11 games. That's a total of 14 sacks in 71 games. Matthews had 13.5 in 2010 alone and was on pace for 16 this season.

"When you're missing a (three)-time Pro Bowler with an injury, there's always a little added incentive to go out there and make plays," Zombo said. "It'll be hard to replace a guy like that but, hopefully, with a couple guys rolling in, we can make up for it."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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