Matthews accepting role as inside linebacker
Skepticism was only natural. For almost six seasons, Clay Matthews made a living — and quite the reputation — playing on the edge. He was one of the NFL's premier pass rushers, an invaluable commodity.
And he knew it.
So, yes, Matthews easily remembers his reluctance when coaches asked him to move to inside linebacker last November. It was a position he'd never played. Not the position where he'd been to multiple Pro Bowls.
"I think anytime somebody asks you to make a position change," Matthews said Thursday, "you're going to be very reluctant about it. Especially when you've had success for several years at that position."
So the biggest mystery of the Green Bay Packers' offseason wasn't so much whether Matthews would play inside linebacker in 2015, but how he'd feel about the inevitable. Playing inside exclusively during the Packers' first open practice of organized team activities brought even more clarity.
Matthews will be an inside linebacker — at least partially, maybe full time — during the fall.
How does he feel about it?
"Am I happy about it? Yeah, of course," Matthews said. "I think you saw our team and our defense, how well we did the second half of the season and how well we improved — run, pass, win column, everything down the board. As well as my personal statistics."
Hindsight can change opinions. Now, Matthews knows how he'll fare at inside linebacker. The move turned out to be quite successful.
Mired in a pass-rushing slump when he made the switch, Matthews seemed revitalized when he moved inside. Of his 11 sacks last season, 81/2 came in the eight games after he started playing inside linebacker. Matthews was held without a full sack in six of his eight games during the first half of last season.
He only had two games without a sack in the season's second half.
"I think the success speaks for itself," Matthews said. "Obviously, if I didn't have as much success, it would probably be a different story. But the fact that I'm still able to get after the quarterback, create pressure, turnovers, TFLs (tackles for loss) — whatever it may be — obviously helps with that transition. It helps the defense as well.
"Getting away from being selfish, it helps the defense even moreso."
Matthews said he didn't know what his future held when last season ended, but he was aware of how much his move benefited the Packers' defense.
The Packers allowed an NFL-worst 153.5 rushing yards per game through the first eight games last season. After Matthews' switch, the defense was among the league's leaders allowing 86.2 rushing yards per game through the final eight games.
The defense was especially impressive for much of the NFC championship game against Seattle. The Packers held the Seahawks' offense scoreless through the first 57 minutes, until every phase collapsed down the stretch.
"I think you'll get a good dose of what we were able to see last year a little bit," Matthews said.
Since the season's end, McCarthy has consistently referred to Matthews as an outside linebacker. He would also leave open the possibility his defense's top playmaker could play elsewhere.
Matthews said he'll play inside and outside linebacker this fall. For the first time, McCarthy didn't define Matthews as any one position while speaking with media Thursday.
"He's a great pass rusher," McCarthy said, "and he's going to continue to play as many different positions as we could possibly get out of him. We need to utilize Clay as much as we can. He's a great player, and we need to give him as many opportunities as we can to make plays."
In hindsight, the Packers' entire offseason approach appears based in the expectation Matthews would remain at inside linebacker.
The team released A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones without adding any inside linebackers through free agency. Thompson then waited until the fourth round before targeting that position in the draft. The lack of urgency was by design.
With Matthews, Thompson knew one of the NFL's best inside linebackers was already under contract.
"Clay's going to be I think playing a lot of different spots," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "We liked the way he finished up the season. We thought he made a big impact on our defense. We were still able to involve him rushing the passer. So that's going to be a fluid state.
"He has the ability to play inside and outside, and wherever our greatest need is at that point in time is probably where Clay will be."
Matthews said he'll primarily focus on inside linebacker during OTAs and minicamp. Last season, he said, was about playing on raw talent and pure instinct. Many fine details go into being a successful inside linebacker. Matthews said he's still learning the position's nuances.
Which is scary, considering how much "patchwork" success Matthews had at inside linebacker last fall. Matthews said he expects to still be a premier pass rusher — still a high commodity — even if he's playing off the line of scrimmage.
"Now, I can rush inside," Matthews said. "I can still rush 100 percent of the time. They'll just rush me from the inside, but I like getting after the quarterback. There's no doubt about that. It's fun for me. It's an art form, rushing the passer, and I thoroughly enjoy that. I think as we saw from last year, though, I was still capable of doing that — whether that be over the guards, center, tackle from the inside.
"It's very much the same position. Just playing at two different spots on the field."
—firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood