Matthews steps into dynamic playmaker role
The hallmark of Dom Capers' best defenses always has been the presence of a versatile, hybrid defender who can single-handedly change the direction of a game.
It just so happens those playmakers tend to take the form of a defensive back like Rod or Charles Woodson, athletic enough to get sideline-to-sideline but also willing and able to defend against the run.
However, nowhere in the fine print does it say you need to be 6-foot, 205 pounds to play in Capers' zone-blitz scheme. Responsibility goes beyond a position on a depth chart. Those rare individuals are defined by their ability to be around the football constantly.
On Sunday night, 6-foot-3, 252-pound linebacker Clay Matthews was that player for the Green Bay Packers.
His career-high 11 tackles (two for a loss) and sack in a 55-14 beat down of the Chicago Bears helped cauterize whatever wounds remained open after the defense's breakdowns in the team's 44-23 loss to New Orleans before the bye.
With a week to reassess its season, Packers coach Mike McCarthy and Capers deployed a game-changing unscouted look against Chicago that saw Matthews slide from his usual spot at outside linebacker to inside next to A.J. Hawk for 38 of his 53 defensive snaps.
This wasn't a revelation. The Packers know what they have in the four-time Pro Bowler, but it's been a challenge to find a defensive package that maximizes his ability.
"On the really good defenses over the years, we've normally had a guy like that," said Capers, who's in his sixth season as defensive coordinator. "Of course, here the first couple years we had Charles and we used Charles that way a lot. We moved him around a lot. Clay really came on and now Clay is kind of that guy. A lot of the different packages are kind of based on that. What can we do here with Clay?"
That started this offseason with the development of a 4-3 (or quad) defensive scheme that bombed once it saw the light of day, particularly against the run. Their linebacker-only NASCAR package has allowed Matthews to rotate inside and been impactful, but it's mainly used in third-and-long situations.
With their run defense ranked dead-last in the NFL, the Packers' defense needed a spark after giving up nearly 500 total yards to the Saints, so they turned to their franchise player on defense.
Coming out of USC in 2009, a lot of scouts believed Matthews was athletic enough to play inside or outside in the NFL. The Packers have even toyed with rushing him from the interior, but nothing as concentrated as what they showed against the Bears.
The coaches brought the idea to Matthews early last week after the team returned from its week off. A year removed from his five-year, $66 million extension, Matthews told them he was on board if it might help pull the Packers out of 25th in total defense.
"He's going to do whatever that you feel is going to help the football team, and that's basically what he said," Capers said. "He likes to rush, which everybody does, but really at the outside linebacker position, he's dropped an awful lot from the outside linebacker position."
Interestingly, Matthews' production at outside linebacker has been down despite the addition of eight-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers. At the midway point, Matthews was on pace for career lows in tackles (36) and sacks (five).
The shift helped on multiple fronts, drastically improving the dynamics from a weak inside linebacker post that saw Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington rotate next to Hawk through the first half of the season.
Matthews still rushed the passer from the outside on 15 snaps and would have had two sacks if not for contact with Jay Cutler's head drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty. His versatility also gave Green Bay the freedom to get one of its run-defenders, outside linebacker Nick Perry, on the field more.
Afterward, Matthews made it clear he doesn't classify himself as an outside or inside linebacker. On Monday, McCarthy agreed.
"Clay Matthews is not an inside linebacker. He's a football player," McCarthy said. "It's really, you go back to the meetings in the spring. We talked about it in the OTAs, and the focus was to play more players on defense, move Clay around and create challenges for the offense, so we'll see here he plays this week."
McCarthy and Capers are quick to add it was one unscouted look in one game. You can be certain the Philadelphia Eagles will start breaking the film down immediately after Monday night's game against Carolina.
When Chip Kelly turns on the reel, however, he's going to see an active defense with Matthews flying around the field and chasing down ball carriers. His blowing up of receiver Chris Williams on an end-around for an 8-yard loss went viral almost instantly.
The Packers operated almost exclusively out of their subpackages with one snap of 3-4 late in the fourth quarter when Matthews was already out of the game, so it remains to be see what they'll do in games calling for the traditional base defense.
Everything seemed to work against the Bears, who were shutout in the first half, with Matthews' disruption in the middle of the field creating noticeable confusion for the Bears. One reason why the quad defense fell short in the past was because it restricted Matthews to playing one side or the other.
On Sunday, Matthews was everywhere.
"You saw him impact the game last night probably more than he has for a while," Capers said. "I think part of that was the fact that he was dropping, he was rushing, he was rushing from inside, he was rushing from outside. … Those are the types of things that you like to see. I think they create more problems for preparation when they aren't sure exactly where Clay is going to be."
The Packers won't commit to using the package exclusively. Things change week-to-week in the NFL, but the performance proved Matthews is more than just a pass-rusher
It's a role Matthews watched Woodson dominate early in his tenure with the Packers, which saw the former Heisman Trophy winner capture the NFL's defensive player of the year award in 2009. While Woodson solidified his Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy, the Packers' defense was ranked among the best in the NFL in Capers' first two seasons as coordinator.
The Packers still miss Woodson's stewardship of the secondary, but maybe they didn't need a Hall of Fame defensive back to get the defense back on track. Maybe the answer was closer than it originally appeared.
Maybe all the Packers needed to do was turn the volume up on Matthews a notch or two.
"You have to have more than athletic ability," Capers said. "You have to be able to process things. You have to be instinctive. You have to be football smart because so much of it out there is timing and hitting things at the right time and disguising and knowing where you have to be and maybe not being aligned there until the quarterback gets into his cadence.
"That's where it was pleasing to see Clay for the first time inside there have the productivity he had (Sunday) night."