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Point of Veau: Mike Neal to Free Up Clay Matthews to Spy Mobile QBs

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Point of Veau: Mike Neal to Free Up Clay Matthews to Spy Mobile QBs

Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. Photo by Corey Behnke of CheeseheadTV.com.

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 carriveau@uwalumni.com.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (74) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

chazman's picture

By Jove, I think you've got it!

Nice analysis Brian.

Evan's picture

Great recap.

My initial thought, which you touched upon, is wouldn't a DB be a better spy considering Kaepernick and RGIII's speed? That would allow Matthews, the best pass rusher, to do what he does best.

To me, teaching a Micah Hyde, for example (a solid tackler) or whoever to be a spy would be easier than teaching Mike Neal to be an OLB.

chazman's picture

Kaepernick is 6'5" 230lbs. I don't know if we have anyone in the backfield that would match up as well size wise.

Evan's picture

That's a very good point.

(I didn't realize he was that big.)

chazman's picture

I had to look it up . . . and yes I copied and pasted the name Kaepernick ;)

Evan's picture

That "ae" combo is almost as stupid as his little chin pubes.

Mojo's picture

Though much the same Evan, but then it helps to have a guy like Matthews who can take on bigger in-motion blockers to get to the QB whereas most CBs would get caught up in the flotsam. But a physical safety type might work too.

Deelux's picture

While Hyde might be a good tackler, the spy also needs to be able to beat a 1-on-1 to get at the QB he's spying. In the example video CM waits...waits...waits, then takes on a guard and gets upfield, further collapsing the pocket and letting Zombo clean up. CM will win WAY more 1-on-1's than any DB.

Evan's picture

Yeah, you're totally right. Short of a Kam Chancellor type DB, Matthews is our best bet.

Stroh's picture

If Matthews is spying the QB, he doesnt' have to be able to beat any blocking. He's mirroring the QB and when he leaves the pocket either by design or freelance the QB isn't going to have a bodyguard. The Read option doesn't use a protector in that manner.

Bearmeat's picture

I dont think you want Mike Neal covering TE's up the seam or RB's in the flat too much.

BUT if he can rush the passer from an OLB position effectively, that does free up CM3 to be an effective do-it-all type guy.

This was a good read Brian. Thanks. I hope this is exactly what happens.

Bears Love Cheddar Biscuits's picture

Might also be effect as an extra LB in Caper's Psycho package as a rusher and run stopper.

trvs's picture

This is fantastic! Great insight.

Watching the play from the Superbowl really solidifies your theory, and watching Walden get himself way out of position is just terrible.

Should be interesting, pending everyone staying healthy...

steve's picture

And now, Walden is Indianapolis' problem!

RC Packer Fan's picture

thank god...

Jersey Al's picture

Great analysis, Brian.

FITZCORE 1252'S EVO's picture

Good stuff. Part of me doesn't like it because that's less snaps Clay will be rushing the passer, and in a selfish way, I want him to rack up around 20 sacks one of these years, because I know he's capable. But, in the big scheme of things, I see what they are doing and it looks to give us the best chance at success, so I'm on board. Good god though man... That's gonna be one big sumbitch at OLB!

RC Packer Fan's picture

I know what your saying with the less opportunity of rushing the QB, but putting Mathews in the 'Spy' mode.

However after thinking about it. He might actually have better opportunities at getting to the QB, because a lot of times he can be taken out of the play by rushing, where him being a spy he can stuff the QB if he try's to escape the pocket.

I remember they used Walden as a spy on Jay Cutler, I believe in their Superbowl run, in which he had 3 sacks when Cutler was flushed from the pocket.

jim's picture

LOL

Cow42's picture

1 - at yesterday's practice I saw Greene working 1 on 1 with Neal on pass rush technique... first time I realized that this is no joke.

2 - Neal looks more "natural" at 270 than he did at 290. i bet a lot of his injuries had to do with his body carrying too much weight.

3 - up until now the Packers were trying to get Neal to fit their system... now they are trying to fit their system to Neal's strengths.

4 - Neal, Jones, Perry, Matthews may very well be the best pass rushing group the Packers have been able to put on the field at one time since I have been a Packer fan (I'm 42).

5 - i would imagine that it might be extremely difficult to run outside against the Packer defense if you were to have Neal (270) holding one edge and Perry (260) holding the other... throw in the fact that in such an alignment CMIII could be coming from ANYWHERE... yikes.

Chad Toporski's picture

So... putting Neal at OLB in OTA's wasn't just a waste of time, then? ;-)

Cow42's picture

yep - i was wrong.

Chad Toporski's picture

It definitely takes honesty and humility to say something like that... Bravo, cow.

Evan's picture

::spit take::

Norman's picture

Okay, who is posting under Cow's ID?

VApackerfan's picture

Seriously, there are positive/thought provoking statements in his post. Nagler, can you and your guys look into who hacked Cow's profile?

Point Packer's picture

I just decided to take the day off. But before I have a beer, I'm heading to the optometrist for a quick check up. And then maybe my grade school guidance counselor...

murphy's picture

cow42 vs Cow42. Had me going for a second.

Cow42's picture

new computer.
had to re-register.
it's me.

jeremy's picture

I like this new Cow42 guy...

Simo0208's picture

Not a better pass rush combo than what they had with Reggie White, Santana Dotson, Sean Jones, and big Gilbert Brown/Jurkovic clogging up the middle. That front was exceptional and Green Bay would be hard-pressed to match it. It gave lines so many fits that LeRoy Butler would run free on safety blitzes because they just couldn't double team everyone (and Gilbert Brown got double teamed simply because he took up that much space!).

trvs's picture

Cow42 sounds excited and optimistic... We should all go buy some lottery tickets.

This might be the year the D steps up. Stay Healthy!

Fish . Crane's picture

I'm still remembering the "TT drafted undersized guys who can't help us now".....while a fan of the 42..that one needs to be addressed.

Cow42's picture

let's be honest...

Dorsey and Johnson would not have contributed much even if they had been able to practice.

If Barrington has to play any snaps on D then something when terribly wrong on the injury front.

Boyd will probably be a PS guy.

I'm still not sold on Franklin whatsoever... the IDEA of him is greater than the ACTUAL him. He's not as elusive as many seem to think.

Tretter would not have been anything more than a backup this season.

Looks like I may have been wrong on Jones and Bakhtiari.
I hope we haven't overrated Bakh just because he looks better than Newhouse.

Let's not get out over our skis with this rookie class.
If Bakhtiari, Jones, Lacy, and Hyde all have to be starters... the Pack's in for a looooooooooooong season.

Evan's picture

Bakhtiari, Jones and Lacy are all already pretty much pencilled in as starters (I know MM said Harris is the starter, but at the very least I think it'll be an even split). But those guys as starters excite me.

As for Hyde, I think he's had a great camp so far. But, yeah, if he's starting that does not bode well for the health of Tramon/Hayward, which would really hurt.

packeraaron's picture

"Bakhtiari, Jones, Lacy, and Hyde all have to be starters… the Pack’s in for a looooooooooooong season"

Or a really good one. They've played lots of rookies before and have ended with winning seasons. As long as Rodgers is playing, shouldn't be any different.

Nick Perry's picture

I still want Williams and Hayward Healthy and playing week one. Really, by next week. Play a series or two and try to start to get ready. I'm really starting to be concerned that wont happen. Missed a ton of time and need to be in football shape and get used to the speed of game again.

The TKstinator's picture

I was at practice yesterday too!
Were you the guy talking about how changing practice from 11:15 to 11:00 "screws the fans"? Or how "it's stupid to have a 100 million dollar QB running scout team defense"?

BTW Aaron tore it up as the scout team middle linebacker. Maybe he's going to be part of some new secret form of "psycho package"? For that kinda money, I don't think getting a little 'd' out of him is too much to ask.

Maybe he can play tuba in the band as well.

Cow42's picture

Yeah - trying to explain to my kids why Rodgers was playing defense was pretty close to impossible.

The TKstinator's picture

So that WAS you? What are the chances?

Sorry, gotta run buy some lottery tickets.

WisconsInExile's picture

Wow, man. It's nice to see The Good Cow. It's been too long. I hope he he's here to stay.

Fudding's picture

Knowing it was a cow post, i kept waiting for the part where it eventually turns negative and starts throwing backhanded compliments, but it never came. Nice post, very refreshing.

Point Packer's picture

The genius behind Cow is that we actually read his posts and he gets mad props for not being a cynical dick.

MarkinMadison's picture

Bravo Brian! I love the use of the video to illustrate the point. It's like Nagler is back. You even made Cow42 into a glass half-full guy. Well, at least for today. ;-)

The TKstinator's picture

The glass IS half full!
Of strawberry milk!!

Let's hope it's not spoiled, though.

BeddarCheddar's picture

Good article, Brian, I hope you're right. I have to confess that the first thought I had when I read about this switch last spring was Torrence Marshall. After they didn't get much from him as an ILB, as a last ditch effort they changed his position to fullback. While it helped him stick on a bit longer, it was really the death knell for him. Marshall's move was more drastic, but Neal's is still tough. Hopefully for his sake he stays healthy and makes the most of this. Perry's been put in a similar situation. I'm sure they'll be good holding the edge, but hopefully they also figure out how to cover the tight end/running back or we'll be trading big gains in the running game for big gains in the passing game.

AndrewInAtlanta's picture

Good stuff Brian. This piece got me jacked up a bit after being pretty down about the defense last year and the injuries so far this year. I also have to say my faith in Capers does not match my faith in TT and MM so, again, this analysis makes me feel pretty good. Put our best athlete and biggest playmaker on theirs. Brilliant. Here's hoping everyone on D not named Matthews does their part

lebowski's picture

Walden. Good riddance.

Point Packer's picture

I agree, but remember who played a huge role in us getting into the playoffs in 2010/11 en route to a SB

I will always thank him for that.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kG0VWNf9Fas

trvs's picture

one word...cutler.

The TKstinator's picture

Didn't Erik get $4 million a year from Indy?? Wow.

calabasa's picture

I think we're all guessing on how the D will handle the read option, based on our personnel that we're familiar with.

Just wait until that offseason studying (Texas A&M, was it?) gets thrown in the real games...we might have no idea what we're in for...

VApackerfan's picture

Brian, great article! This style of play would put a lot on Neal's shoulders, especially without Matthews rushing the QB. I guess I should include Perry and D. Jones in that statement too. Bottom line, we need a pass rush. Even looking at that replay above, there wasn't much of a push from Raji or Neal. That worries me. Does that mean Jones and Perry are going to have to be playmakers in order for this defense to shine? Not trying to be pessimistic, but realistic, especially for one guy coming off of a season ending injury, and a rookie who is a little banged up right now. Dropping 20lbs should help Neal come of the edge faster. We can't afford anymore average joe's like Zombo and Walden to fill the void. Guys need to rise up if this defense wants to make a difference.

Evan's picture

Season ending injury to his wrist. It's not like it was an ACL or anything. I'm not worried about Perry's health.

VApackerfan's picture

I'm not either...just a lot of unknowns about him right now.

PackRat's picture

Would like to see them lock up Neal for three years to make the experiment worthwhile...

HotHispanicGirl's picture

Interesting take on the Mike Neal experiment.

4thand1's picture

Packer's D went from 5th overall to last, and back up to 11th last year. They got caught totally off guard by the read option against the 49ers. The failed mary would have gotten them a week at home to prepare for it. Still crying over spilled milked milk,lmao.

Paul Ott Carruth's picture

This move makes a lot of sense. Be prepared to see a lot of firezone pressure against the read option. It is very effective. In fact, the Packers ran some against the 49ers in the playoff game. In particular, Sam Shields came off the corner on one of those firezones but failed to make the tackle. Good call...poor execution of the call.

Ruppert's picture

Nice piece, Brian. If Neal can be functional at OLB it could be huge.

The playoff disaster isn't totally an accurate reflection of the year-long work of the defense. The D wasn't that dreadful all year long. We could be adding Jones and Jolly to the D line (yes, I think Jolly will make the team and end up playing pretty well this year). We could be bringing back a healthy Perry and adding Neal to OLB. That's a lot to add to the defense. I hope these guys stay healthy.

hayward4president's picture

There is no reason to not be excited about our D. We added good players.....n we were 11th last year!

Andy's picture

Great analysis

tundragator's picture

Packers did use Matthews as a spy a couple of times during the playoff loss and he was bad at it too. CK turned him completely around on one play (seriously, Matthews did a pirouette in the middle of the field). The answer to a truly athletic quarterback like CK our RG III isn't just a spy, the entire D has to be responsible. Roethlisberger could be spied because he's just not that fast; CK, et al are too quick to put one man in that position.

packeraaron's picture

Matthews was not in a spy role on the play where he got spun around.

Ma Linger's picture

You forgot to mention that he was manhandled by the O line as well. When it comes down to it his skill set has dropped over the past two years once Jennings was let go, another brilliant move by TT to save a dime.

Teams know other teams and when they see the Pack has no right side pressure, they can neutralize a Mathews.

Steve's picture

Matthews number of sacks may not be as high as we like. Making tackles on running backs and spying QBs will surely take opportunities away

Stroh's picture

Only numbers I care about are "W". Guessing Matthews feels same.

Ma Linger's picture

Sound's like a plan. I'm still wonndering about Perry's abilities. He showed me little when he did play for a number 1 to be shuffled in and out of the lineup, that say's he was not performing well last year in the eyes of the coaches. Pre injury of course.

I still beleive until he and Worthy ( I expected nothing from him so I'm not disappointed) do something to show they should have been 1 and 2 picks, last years draft was a bust for TT.

Evan's picture

"A bust until proven otherwise" is really a lame way to view rookies.

Fudding's picture

Using Neal and Perry's power to collapse the pocket while keeping lane integrity makes a lot of sense, as opposed to Matthews upfield speed rush which created lanes.

Besides being a spy, i think they will have Matthew delay blitz. It will leave less space for Matthews to have to make the play in, and they can play mind games with Kaepernick by purposely creating a lane, with Matthews being sent to fill it once Kaepernick sees it.

Having the power guys will also help lane integrity against the read/option, which was a huge problem with the OLBs having to take on pulling OGs and OTs.

redlights's picture

Glass half-empty: 2012 Pack D was terrible on 3rd downs; Pack #1 D this year isn't any better based on the two "games" they've played.

Glass half-full: #11 in 2012 (I think yards is a terrible statistic); Division champs and only outed from playoffs by a highly planned, new twist game plan.

I'm hopeful, but need to see it in action.

PackersRS's picture

#4 in sacks and in opposite QB rating last year also.

The Packers' D was one of the best in the league against the pass. The problem was that it did terribly against the run, specially against scrambling QBs.

That, and Capers likes to take naps during games.

Nerd's picture

I think they should convert Mike Daniels too. He's undersized on the DL, loves to get to the QB and he's much more durable (not to jinx him of course) than Neal.

Jesse's picture

I'm not sure about a pure QB spy, but I can see them trying to free CM up to not just pure pass rush.

Every in depth article I have read about the read option leads me to believe that the more traditional QB spy approach is not effective. It's supposedly all about communication between LB/DE/DT, scraping techniques, etc.

That said, who knows. I don't know how A&M plays against it and maybe having Neal in stand up could just help CM keep from having to pass rush every down and make him more effective at defending these zone read / option plays.

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