GREEN BAY — While wide receiver Jordy Nelson was smiling and high-fiving teammates once word of his lucrative contract extension reached the Green Bay Packers practice field Saturday, Tramon Williams had his own reason to celebrate.
As Williams settled into his cornerback spot during the Packers’ first practice of training camp, he looked toward the line of scrimmage and saw Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, two of the NFL’s premier pass-rushers, lined up at outside linebacker. Paired together for the first time since Peppers was signed as a free agent, the duo brought a smile to the face of everyone in the Packers’ secondary.
“It’s a dream come true,” Williams said. “You always hope for guys like that in front of you. We haven’t had that type of tandem over the years here.”
Not for lack of trying. The Packers have been seeking a complementary pass rusher ever since they drafted Matthews in 2009, but they never found anyone good enough to discourage opposing offenses from targeting Matthews with their blocking schemes.
Peppers is 34 and isn’t the consistently dynamic player he once was, but with 119 sacks over 12 NFL seasons at Carolina and Chicago, he’s been a difference-maker wherever he’s been. And anyone who has watched the steady decline of the defense since the 2010 Super Bowl season knows how badly the Packers need playmakers on that side of the ball.
Fielding an improved the defense is the biggest key for a Packers team that is trying to catch up with Seattle and San Francisco in the NFC. And despite all the talk about holes at safety and inside linebacker, the most important personnel move toward that end was acquiring a player with a track record of bringing the heat to opposing quarterbacks. Peppers is that guy and Saturday he and Matthews finally got on the field together.
“I’m excited about it,” said Matthews, who missed all of the off-season workouts while rehabbing his twice-broken thumb. “Obviously I take pride in my individual game and I never rely on anyone else, but it’s only going to help.
“So I’m excited about that. I’m not going to sit here and say that we’re each going to get 20 sacks or we’re each going to do this or that, but any time you can add talent to your roster, it’s going to benefit the team.”
Potentially the best pass-rush tandem in Green Bay since Reggie White and Sean Jones, the Matthews-Peppers combo should benefit the Packers in some very important ways.
First, it will give them capable pass rushers on both ends of the line of scrimmage, forcing offenses to make a decision on where they want to slide their protection or direct their double teams.
“You look around the league and you look at the tandems of pass rushers who have one on the left and one on the right, they definitely help increase their numbers as well as the effectiveness of that defense,” Matthews said. “We’re hoping that this year is no different. There’s a reason we brought him in here; it’s to help create pressure on the quarterback along with myself and the guys in the middle. You look at a lot of defenses that are pretty good in this league, they have pass rushers that can get after the quarterback and get them off their spot. I think that was clearly evident in the Super Bowl last year.”
In that game, Seattle’s aggressive defense dominated Denver’s line and got to its elite quarterback, Peyton Manning.
A second benefit from the addition of Peppers is versatility. Coach Mike McCarthy wants more versatility on defense in 2014 and Peppers, with his ability to play linebacker or end, is a part of that.
Peppers’ presence also will allow the Packers to move Matthews around more in the formation instead of always lining him up on the outside, something that was evident in Saturday’s practice. McCarthy said making Matthews a moving target causes additional problems for offenses.
“They definitely had me moving around from lining up in the middle of the field as a stack backer to the left, to the right, lining up in the slot, and just putting more of our playmakers on the field,” Matthews said. “I think the problem that it presents for the offense is so many moving pieces. ... I think I bring a multitude of weapons to the game and I think I could do that through lining up all over the field. I think it’s about mismatches and putting us in advantageous positions.
“We’ll see how that does moving forward, but I felt good about it today and hopefully it will only get better.”
That’s the whole idea.
General manager Ted Thompson doesn’t use free agency often, but he made an exception in Peppers’ case. If the pairing clicks, it could be the first step toward a much-needed defensive recovery.
“That’s why they’re here,” McCarthy said. “Obviously (they’re) two very impactful players, so you definitely want them on the field at the same time as much as possible. (But) we’re not going to build a defense on just 11 players.
“I’m looking for more players, more involvement, more personnel groups.”
As long as those groups include Matthews and Peppers, everyone should be smiling and high-fiving.