GREEN BAY, Wisconsin — Clay Matthews' sore left ankle is feeling better.
The Green Bay Packers' defense as a whole needs to get back into shape, and fast.
After allowing two straight opponents to accumulate at least 500 yards, Green Bay must now prepare for dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton and the unbeaten Carolina Panthers' top-ranked rushing attack.
"Yeah he does a great job, not only using the pocket and with his arm strength, but also outside the pocket when he's going to run," Matthews said Thursday after practice. "Just a big guy that's hard to tackle."
The 6-foot-5 Newton can bowl over defenders who get in his way. So can 5-foot-10 running back Jonathan Stewart, Carolina's leading rusher.
This is not the same team the Packers dismantled 38-17 last season at Lambeau Field.
"They're obviously undefeated for a reason and doing it the right way. They're having success running the ball," Matthews said.
Until recently, the Packers had done a relatively good job stopping the run. That has changed over the last month, when Green Bay has allowed at least 160 yards on the ground in two of its last three games.
The Packers' defense was slowed somewhat by a left ankle injury to Matthews. He returned after a series or two on the sideline, although noticeably a step slower.
Coach Mike McCarthy's best defensive playmaker is thankful the injury wasn't as serious as initially feared.
"It was pretty scary for me. Dealing with a little swelling and all that. But for the most part I'm hoping that it keeps progressing, moving in the right direction," Matthews said.
He has been limited in practice the last two days, though getting even some work on a Thursday is a good sign because it is typically the Packers' longest day of practice.
Assuming Matthews is ready, the Packers will need a team-wide effort to shore up a defense that looked overmatched by Denver.
Safety Micah Hyde offered a blunt assessment this week.
"We just went out there and we (stunk)," Hyde said. "Plain and simple."
It has been a precipitous decline over the last few weeks.
Going into the Oct. 11 game against St. Louis, the Packers were seventh in team defense and fourth against the pass. Green Bay was 24th against the rush, though that was in part due to yardage picked up by quarterbacks on the run.
The defensive effort helped pick up the offense, which has been struggling to move the ball consistently.
But the defense has tailed off, allowing 503 yards passing to Philip Rivers on Oct. 18 in a win over San Diego. Denver's domination last week serves as the lowlight of the season on both sides of the ball.
"Sometimes in this league it's beneficial to get humbled like this early in the season," tackle B.J. Raji said. "I guess when you're winning, players have a tendency to sweep things under the rug, so I think when you lose you're forced to address things that could be beneficial this week."
One of the top concerns is getting back to stopping the run. The Packers had some success slowing down mobile quarterbacks earlier this year in Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, though Matthews said it doesn't necessarily mean that experience will help against Newton.
"I think with Cam, I think he likes to stay a little bit more in the pocket. But he's not afraid to leave the pocket, he's not afraid to make plays," Matthews said. "At times, we'll have people eyeing him. For the most part, just need to be smart with your pass rush, much like quarterbacks we saw earlier in the season with Kaep and Russell."
NOTES: LB Nick Perry (shoulder/hand) was limited for a second straight day, as was WR Ty Montgomery (ankle). The rookie receiver said he wasn't sure about if he would play against Carolina. ... CBs Sam Shields (shoulder) and Quinten Rollins (neck) missed a second straight day of practice.
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