Versatile Matthews shows he's more than a rusher
Relocation is nothing new for Clay Matthews. At 28 years old, he's played nearly every role imaginable in the Green Bay Packers' defense and never has stayed at the same linebacker spot for more than two seasons.
Still, it doesn't compare to what defensive coordinator Dom Capers is asking of his four-time Pro Bowler this season.
It's been only two games, but there's been an obvious change in how the team is using its best pass rusher, who's being asked to drop into coverage like never before.
After notching career-high pass-rush rates in 2012 (84.4 percent) and 2013 (84.5), Matthews is rushing on 72.5 percent of passing downs this season, the lowest since his rookie year in 2009 (70.0), according to Pro Football Focus.
Matthews says he's cool with it. In fact, he believes it will help show there's more to his game than the 51 career sacks that helped earn him a five-year, $66 million extension last year.
"I think I can do it all," Matthews said. "I think over the years, I've been known as a sack guy, but I think what's been lost in the shuffle is the fact that I can cover, I can play in space and rush the passer as well."
Matthews continues to rush on the line of scrimmage in the 3-4 base and nickel defense. But he's experienced the most drastic change in the Packers' new 4-3 alignment, in which he's performed most of his coverage drops.
When that formation is called, Matthews often lines up a few yards off the line of scrimmage next to the inside linebackers, while elephant linebackers Julius Peppers, Mike Neal or Nick Perry carry the rush off the edges. He can join them in pursuit, fall back or flank out to cover a receiver in the slot.
There was one play in Sunday's 31-24 win over the New York Jets in which Matthews lined up at middle linebacker only to rush quarterback Geno Smith, who absorbed the pressure to make a 29-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker.
Matthews played 65 total snaps against the Jets with nearly half of those (31) coming against the run. He dropped back on 12 of his 34 pass-rushing snaps (35.5 percent), which was his highest percentage of snaps in coverage since a 19-14 loss to Kansas City on Dec. 18, 2011.
Matthews still managed to register his first sack of the season in the fourth quarter when he chased down Michael Vick, which he said is enough to please him, especially after he had a half-sack erased by penalty in the opener.
However, it's still off the pace he set in 2010 and 2012 when he started with six sacks in two games.
Schematically, Capers has been criticized in the past for not doing enough with Matthews' versatility. When forging the defense's new philosophy, maximizing Matthews' strengths was on the forefront of the coaching staff's mind.
"That's one of the things he can do," Capers said. "He can do both and he's good at both. You have to be able to do that. If you just say you're going to bring him every down, people are going to set up their game plan accordingly. If you bring him one down and then drop him another down, it makes it tough on them."
Along with the assignment changes, the Packers have been moving Matthews around with more regularity. According to Pro Football Focus, he's rushed from the right side on 65.2 percent of his pass-rush snaps this season and 28.3 percent from the left.
Those numbers might not seem staggering, but they're a significant swing from how he had been used his first five seasons.
The Packers started Matthews off at right outside linebacker in 2009 before moving him to the left side for two seasons and back to the right in 2012 and 2013. On whatever side he was aligned, he'd taken at least 81.2 percent of his pass-rush snaps from that post.
The highest concentration of snaps Matthews saw from one spot came on the right side his rookie season (96.7 percent). Capers has looked to expand his role, but injuries have halted plans in each of the past two seasons.
Hamstring issues and a twice-broken thumb have resulted in Matthews missing nine games during that time. In playing him off the line and occasionally dropping into coverage, the Packers hope they not only can benefit from his versatility, but also keep him healthy.
"Clay is a freak of nature," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "That guy can do everything. That's why he helps out our defense so much. Dom has so much leeway with our defense because we have guys like Clay who can move all the way around. Whenever he steps up to the line, the offense has to respect him."
Matthews knows what comes with being the cornerstone. During his first two seasons, Charles Woodson was asked to make plays throughout the secondary whether it was in coverage, blitzing or against the run.
The Packers need playmakers to emerge to get back to that level. If that means Matthews dropping like a slot cornerback or covering a few extra yards in pursuit of the quarterback, then so be it.
"I think over the years I've proven that I can rush against not only against tackles but guards, tight ends, running backs, whatever it is," Matthews said. "We're trying to present mismatches because if you do line someone up in the same spot for the same time, they're just going to figure out a way to slow you down. Ultimately, we need to find ways for our playmakers to make plays, and this seems to be working and it seems to be one of them."
Matthews went nearly two weeks without appearing in the Packers' locker room, including after Sunday's win over the Jets. It fueled some speculation he might be upset with his lot in the current scheme.
If Matthews has any issue with how he's being used in the remodeled defense, he's not letting on.
"You know what, I got one after two games and I'm happy about that," Matthews said. "Hopefully at the end of the season when it's all said and done, we'll have a multitude of tallies in every category along the board and you guys will be saying he's a complete player and has showcased that this year."
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