On Wednesday, when Mike Neal had his best training camp practice of the year, at least according to Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, I think I finally realized why the defensive lineman by trade has been moonlighting as an outside linebacker.
Moonlighting is probably an unfair word choice. The Packers appear to be committed to Neal’s development at the position, going back to the offseason program in the April through June timeframe.
But if Neal can prove a capable outside linebacker, like he did on Wednesday at practice, that should be able to free up Clay Matthews to act as a “spy” on the dangerous quarterbacks they’ll face, especially early in the 2013 season.
“I think really today is probably the first time you felt what we were hoping he’s about,” said McCarthy of Neal, “his ability to be a difference maker as far his ability to put him in one-on-one situations for him to win and win consistently. I think Mike had his best practice today of training camp.”
In the season opener, the Packers face 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick––the central character in last season’s playoff demise––and follow that up in Week 2 by facing the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III in the home opener at Lambeau Field.
“Spying” is nothing new in the NFL. It’s used by many defenses to essentially mirror the opposing quarterback, ready to tackle him at a moment’s notice if he decides to take off and run.
You might remember the Packers effectively using Matthews as a spy in Super Bowl XLV, wanting to keep Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger confined to the pocket (a fantastic summary of Matthews’ role that game is broken down by Al Bracco of AllGreenBayPackers.com).
Part of the reason Matthews was an effective spy in February of 2011 was because the Packers still had Cullen Jenkins on their roster, a reliable pass rusher that could generate pressure on his own. In the following video, see how the tandem of a pass-rushing Jenkins and a lying-in-wait Matthews allow Frank Zombo to sack Roethlisberger.
Fast forward to last season’s playoff loss to the 49ers, when Kaepernick ran over the Packers to the tune of 181 yards, an NFL single-game rushing record for a quarterback.
The Packers tried using a spy against Kaepernick a handful of times. They also split those duties between Matthews and Erik Walden. You can see the disastrous result when the Packers tried to use Walden as a spy in the video below (also courtesy of Bracco).
The stark reality is, Walden just wasn’t an effective spy. He simply wasn’t athletic enough to keep up with the likes of Kaepernick, whether it was as a spy or lined up in his usual spot on the line of scrimmage. But they needed Matthews to rush the quarterback. He was one of the few capable of doing so.
Now go back up to the video above from the 49ers game. You’ll notice the Packers actually used Neal in a two-point stance last season, technically as one of two defensive lineman in the Packers’ dime package, but rushing off the edge nonetheless.
The difference this season will be for Matthews and Neal to be joined by Nick Perry and Datone Jones on passing downs in place of Walden and B.J. Raji, as you see above. From a personnel standpoint alone, you can see how the Packers will be better equipped to handle the read-option in 2013, assuming Perry and Jones live up to their first-round billing.
If the Packers can get a pass rush with Neal, Jones and Perry, that will allow Dom Capers to employ Matthews as a spy, who might be the only player on the roster able to do such a job. Charles Woodson used to be a capable spy back in the day, but I’m not sure there’s any defensive backs currently around that can do what Woodson did. Maybe Casey Hayward can, maybe Jerron McMilian can, but we still need the proof.
When you also see Matthews lined up as essentially an inside linebacker from time to time, you also perhaps see why the Packers were willing to part ways with Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith in the offseason.
The more the Packers use their dime formation and the more Matthews either blitzes from the middle or acts a spy, the less of a need there is to have an extra inside linebacker on the field.
I used to think Neal would only be effective as an outside linebacker in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but now I see there might be more than meets the eye.
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@example.com.