If this past Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns was any indication, however, the free fall was barely noticeable, a step down the staircase.
Granted, facing quarterback Brandon Weeden and the Browns offense is nothing like facing Payton Manning and the Broncos, but for the rookie duo making their first career starts at outside linebacker, they held their own.
“I was proud of the way our young guys stepped in there (Sunday) and performed,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers the day after the game. “I thought they handled the pressure of the situation very well. Andy Mulumba had played a number of plays the week before. It was the first time we’d seen Nate Palmer in there, and I thought those guys handled their jobs well, enabled us to get off to a good start.”
Indeed, the Packers limited the Browns to a three-and-out series on the first drive of the game and would have held them to a second were it not for a roughing the kicker penalty that gave Cleveland a new set of downs.
Green Bay was in control of the game from the very start, staking out to a 14-0 lead before the end of the first quarter and largely held the Browns in check the rest of the way.
Mulumba and Palmer were far from perfect, but considering they’re replacing a pair of first round draft choices in the starting lineup, it was an encouraging showing.
Frequently lining up across from former All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, it was probably expected that Palmer would be in for a long afternoon, but the sixth round draft choice performed admirably.
Both outside linebackers received negative grades rushing the passer on Sunday from ProFootballFocus.com, but helped to make up for it by both grading out positively in defending against the run.
The impact was felt as the Packers allowed a season-low 216 total yards of offense and an average of a mere 3.2 yards per play to the Browns.
Not only were the Packers without the services of Matthews and Perry in Week 7, Mike Neal was limited due to a shoulder injury suffered in the preceding week and the defense had to adjust.
“I think Dom’s done a very good job, and the defensive staff, of tailoring to the players that are available,” said head coach Mike McCarthy. “Frankly we didn’t know if Mike Neal was going to play probably until Saturday night. This is really the product of a long season. You always have these challenges. Ours are just have come bunches the past couple weeks. Our job as coaches is to put the players in the best position to be successful, period. And we don’t sway from that.”
There probably wasn’t a better environment and a better opponent for Mulumba and Palmer to get the first extended playing time of their professional careers than facing the Browns at Lambeau Field, but it’s not as if they can rest on their laurels.
With Matthews and Perry expected to miss at least a couple more weeks, the rookie linebackers will continue to be relied upon, even if Mike Neal returns to full health.
The challenge this upcoming week will be a division game against the Minnesota Vikings in the Metrodome, not the toughest opponent based upon recent performances but one that rivalry usually seems to bring out the best in them.
If nothing else, the upgrade in running back in going from Willis McGahee of the Browns to Adrian Peterson of the Vikings will not be easy.
“I thought Nate and Andy, they were solid,” said McCarthy. “Their goals, specifically what they were asked to do, I thought they did that. They were assignment sound. Technique can improve. Impact was probably not what they wanted. They definitely took a step forward from last week, and I look for them guys to get better this week and hopefully have more of an impact against the Vikings.”
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” and editor of Cheesehead TV’s “Pro Football Draft Preview.” To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.