They're the college defensive ends that are too small and quick to remain in a three-point stance at the next level and the linebackers too big and strong to play off the line of scrimmage.
Outside linebackers in the 3-4 are the playmakers of the defense, those asked to harass opposing quarterbacks and get the most sacks on the team. And if they don't sack the quarterback, they must hurry them, pressure them or flush them out of the pocket.
One of the biggest problems for the Packers this season is that they haven't gotten that kind of production out of their outside linebackers. And that's not necessarily an indictment of the players or the coaches (although the rookie OLBs have been M.I.A.), it's part of the larger injury epidemic on the team.
Reality is, the Packers defense operates at peak efficiency when Clay Matthews and Nick Perry are on the field at the same time with Mike Neal and Andy Mulumba playing on a situational basis or occasionally spelling the starters.
Instead, Matthews has missed four full games, half of another and might as well have missed the game he wore a club cast on his hand. His cohort Perry has missed five full games and parts of a few others with a broken bone in his foot and an ankle injury further complicating matters.
Matthews and Perry have been plenty effective when healthy and when on the field at the same time. Evidence points to Matthews leading the team with six sacks, and Perry appeared to be coming into his own before going down with a broken foot, coming up with three sacks before succumbing to injury.
With a pair of former first round draft picks relegated to the sidelines, Neal has been thrust into a starting role when he's better suited to a reserve one.
It's not as Neal has played poorly. It's impressive that he's been able to make the transition to a new position while transforming his body from roughly 295 lbs. to 275, at least according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
But proving problematic for Neal is having to operate in space with a body that's built for playing in a phone booth.
Neal is most effective when able to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback as his team-leading 28 quarterback hurries can attest, a dozen more than the next closest player (defensive lineman Mike Daniels with 16), per ProFootballFocus.com.
As suggested by a follower on Twitter, however, Neal is the king of almost getting to the quarterback. Despite the 28 hurries, he's third on the team with 10 quarterback hits and has just three sacks.
Worse yet is when Neal has to chase a running back to the sidelines or drop into coverage. He's second on the team with 10 missed tackles this season (also according to ProFootballFocus.com), three less than inside linebacker A.J. Hawk who's played in excess of 160 more snaps than Neal in 2013.
If Matthews and Perry were healthy, the job of defensive coordinator Dom Capers becomes much easier, able to insert Neal in certain down-and-distance situations or when the opponent trots out particular personnel groupings that gives Neal a better chance to succeed.
Not helping matters are the contributions of rookies Mulumba and Nate Palmer, who have combined to play exactly 400 snaps this season but have yet to register a single sack.
Both were kept on the roster at the expense of Dezman Moses, who chipped in four sacks as an undrafted rookie in 2012.
The Packers have been mired in a four-game winless streak since Aaron Rodgers has been injured, but it's been the defense that's let the team down over the past month.
Maybe the fortunes of the Green Bay defense will change now that Matthews is back to being able to use his fingers in a fiberglass cast and Perry is back to practicing this week in preparation of Thursday's Thanksgiving Day matchup against the Detroit Lions.
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 [email protected].
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