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Packers turn to USC, again, for pass rusher

Posted Apr 26, 2012

It worked once. Why not try it again?

A USC linebacker named Clay Matthews was the player around whom Dom Capers would transform the Packers defense into a snazzy 3-4 look that leaped to the top of the league rankings in 2009. A year later, Matthews led the Packers to the Super Bowl XLV title.

“Go back to our Super Bowl year and I think we were able to rush the quarterback as well as any team in the league,” Capers told reporters on Thursday night, after the Packers had made their first-round draft pick, another USC linebacker, this one named Nick Perry. “We have to get back to pressuring the quarterback like we did a couple of years ago.”

The hope is that Perry will make that happen by being the other rusher, the guy on the side opposite Matthews, who’ll make offenses focus their attention on someone other than Matthews. The hope is that Perry’s presence will help Matthews’ game as much as Matthews’ will help Perry’s.

Matthews didn’t have that kind of pass-rush complement last season. As a result, the Packers’ pass-rush ranking went from third in the league in sacks per pass play in 2010, to dead last in the league in 2011. That won’t work in today’s game. That wouldn’t even have worked in yesterday’s game.

“The basis of our defense starts with our ability to threaten offenses from both sides. If you can threaten with both outside linebackers, we feel we ought to win that battle,” Capers said.

In 2010, the Packers did win that battle. Matthews notched 13.5 sacks and was runner up to Troy Polamalu for defensive player of the year.

Last season, Matthews’ sacks total sagged to six. He was routinely double-teamed and chip-blocked. He was the focus of every team the Packers faced. Perry is expected to change that.

“We think he has the speed to come off the corner,” Capers said of Perry, a maturing player at USC who had yet to hit his stride. At the scouting combine this past February, however, Perry put on a show of power, speed and agility that made it easy to look past the development part and see clearly what he can become.

He ran in the 4.5s. He jumped through the “roof” of Lucas Oil Stadium, an indicator of the kind of leg explosion that makes for great pass rushers.

“I don’t think there are many guys his size that run in the 4.5s,” Capers said.

“He can carry his weight pretty good,” General Manager Ted Thompson said.

At nearly 6-3 and 271 pounds, the Packers drafted a player big enough and strong enough to have played with his hand on the ground and take on massive offensive tackles in college. It’s his speed, however, that made him the Packers’ pick. In Capers’ 3-4, Perry will play standing up, in space, for the purpose of using his speed to leave tackles grabbing at air.

“The No. 1 criterion is if you have that explosive ability to come off the edge,” Capers said. “He’s an explosive player.”

Perry was at the bottom of a run on pass rushers on the first day of the draft that didn’t begin until Seattle made Bruce Irvin a surprise pick at 15. By the time the Packers picked Perry, eight pass rushers had come off the board.

“It wasn’t a need pick. He was a guy we had targeted and felt he could come in and contribute,” Thompson said.

Perry was selected at or a little below where most draft services had him rated. Had he stayed at USC for one more season, more development might’ve made him a top 10 pick.

“Tremendous physical specimen,” Thompson said.

What if he’s the second coming of Matthews? It worked once. Why not a second time?

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