The Green Bay Packers came into the 2012 offseason with an obvious hole at right outside linebacker.
One offseason practice in, and maybe they've filled that hole with a name you know: Clay Matthews.
A Pro Bowler the last two seasons as the Packers' starting left outside linebacker, Matthews gave way to first-round pick Nick Perry on the left side during the team's first organized team activity (OTA) Tuesday. Matthews then shifted over to the right, where he recorded 10 sacks as a rookie in 2009.
"Clay has played both sides now, so we want to make sure we continue to create targeting problems with a Clay Matthews," Packers head coach McCarthy said. "But just like any young player, you do want to have a starting point. And right now we want to look and see how comfortable Nick is on the left side."
When the Packers selected Perry with the 28th overall pick in last month's NFL draft, the expectation was that the 6-3, 265-pound pass rusher would become the defense's immediate answer opposite Matthews. McCarthy made it clear that regardless of where Perry lines up come September, the first-round pick will be given the opportunity to play right away.
"Nick will be given a chance to play early," McCarthy said.
Matthews became a starter for the Packers 3-4 defense just three games into his rookie season. While primarily lining up on the right side during '09, Matthews has now been the rock on the defense's left side the past two seasons.
The Packers willingness to start Perry at on the left side could still be nothing more than a mid-May experiment, but the idea of having the bigger player man the left side makes sense in theory.
Not all 3-4 teams abide by the idea, but offenses generally run more to the right side—or the defense's left side—which develops the need for a stronger, more stout player at left outside linebacker. According to the Packers website, Perry (265) outweighs Matthews (255) by 10 pounds. Perry weighed in at 271 pounds at the NFL combine in February.
Given that obvious weight advantage, one could assume that Perry would hold up better facing the run head-on than the smaller, more agile Matthews.
Moving Matthews to the right side would then pit the Packers' best pass rusher against the opposition's left tackle, who is typically the team's best pass blocker. Matthews saw his fair share of double teams as a pass rusher on left side of the defense last season as teams threw tight ends and chip blocks at him more times than not in obvious passing situations.
Matthews notched a career low six sacks as the Packers' only legitimate pass rusher, which necessitated the team's need to take Perry in the first round.
Perry didn't seem concerned about where he would be playing two weekends ago at the Packers' rookie minicamp.
“It doesn’t matter,” Perry said. “Last year, I played on the right side. The year before that, I played both sides. That’s really not an issue. I can play both sides. I’m just ready to play.”
Even that weekend, McCarthy stressed that playing on the left side was a starting point for Perry.
“It’s a starting point,” McCarthy said. “We played Nick Perry exclusively on the left side (today), so that will be the starting point for him.”
Time will tell whether the Packers are serious about playing the two USC pass rushers in this setup, or if Perry is simply learning the ropes during a time—the middle of May—that means very little in the grand scheme of a season.
However, the Packers likely wouldn't waste practice reps on something they aren't planning to ultimately use, and the schematic fit of having Perry on the left side makes sense from a defensive point of view. It's far from in stone right now, but don't be surprised if Perry continues to play on the left side once training camp rolls around late this summer.