Here’s something no one in the NFL was thinking last year at this time, or maybe even during the offseason: Clay Matthews is scarier for offenses at inside linebacker than outside.
That goes against conventional wisdom in the league. The top outside pass rushers win games, and they need open space on the outside to get past blockers and disrupt passing games.
Matthews is one of the league’s best, so the assumption has been that the Green Bay Packers still would play him outside if they could. They just can’t because they don’t have enough talent at inside linebacker.
The second half of last season proved Matthews’ value to the Packers in his new role: They ranked No. 25 in yards allowed and No. 19 in points allowed in the first eight games, then in the eight games after moving Matthews inside they were Nos. 9 and 6.
But watching Saturday’s training camp practice, the Packers’ first in pads this year, drove home the point: Matthews very well might be more dangerous inside, in part because of the seemingly rejuvenated B.J. Raji’s return to the defensive line this season.
One of the things that stood out during an 11-on-11 blitz period Saturday was Matthews’ play as an A-gap blitzer (i.e, between the center and guards) when he lined up behind the defensive line pairing of Raji and Mike Daniels in nickel personnel.
A-gap blitzes are becoming more popular in the NFL because of offenses’ emphasis on quick-throw passing games. Inside rushers have the shortest route to the quarterback, so they can get home quicker, though only if they can slide past or plow over the traffic in the middle of the line.
That’s where Raji can help Matthews. In the last two or three seasons, Raji still had a relatively explosive first step, but he looked slower off the ball than he did in, say, 2010. He’s talked this offseason about dedicating himself to a good diet and conditioning, and he looks slimmer in the body and face than the last few years.
And in team drills Saturday, Raji looked like some of his former quickness has come back. He gave Corey Linsley a few problems, and Linsley already looks like one of the better centers in the game. That suggests Raji might be a real factor this year.
Daniels is the Packers’ best defensive lineman, and if Raji can maintain the level of play he showed Saturday, the two have the technical skill and power to free Matthews on A-gap blitzes. Their ability to occupy and move blockers can set up Matthews one-on-one in space against a guard or, more likely, a center.
That’s a mismatch athletically. Matthews has the length (6-feet-3) to obstruct a quarterback’s vision and passing lanes, and he’s explosive enough to close the door quickly when shooting the A-gap. He could be in for a big pressure and sacks season.
Don’t be surprised if fourth-round pick Jake Ryan is pushing for playing time at inside linebacker by the end of camp.
For now, Nate Palmer replaces Matthews on the occasional snaps when the latter moves to outside linebacker. But Ryan already appears to have moved past Carl Bradford on the depth chart, and in pads Saturday he showed enough instincts and physical play to think he’ll make a bid for playing time as camp goes on.
What stood out most was Ryan’s ability to press the line of scrimmage in the physical half-line, inside-run drill. He consistently took on the guards and fullbacks at the line of scrimmage instead of a yard or two on his side of the ball. That helps close down running lanes.
■One of the young players who stood out Saturday was an undrafted rookie who had a strong offseason and now a good first three days of camp: cornerback LaDarius Gunter.
His eye-catching play Saturday was breaking up an Aaron Rodgers pass to Jordy Nelson on a slant pattern. Gunter is a little like departed free agent Davon House with his ability to be around the ball. The thing with House was you couldn’t count on him because of injuries.
We’ll see what happens with Gunter in preseason games, when the speed of the game picks up. But for a taller cornerback (6-1 ½) he sinks his hips well and looks really good coming out of breaks.
■Cornerback Sam Shields’ game is changing as he starts his sixth NFL season. He used to be technically unsound, and relied on his pure speed to make it to the ball when he was beaten. He’s maturing as a player and becoming more of a technician, which could extend his career.
On Saturday he made a veteran's play when he was matched one-on-one against Davante Adams. Rodgers threw Adams a comeback route, and Shields ran with Adams, then squatted when Adams stopped, reached around Adams and knocked down the pass. In the past Shields was more likely to get beat on that throw because he wouldn't have read the route, and instead would have kept running rather than squatting on the pattern.
On another play, Shields covered Randall Cobb one-on-one on a go route. Shields squeezed Cobb to the sideline as they ran, which kept Cobb from getting up field and caused an incompletion.
■Backup offensive lineman Don Barclay looked on Saturday like the same player he was before sustaining a torn ACL in camp last year. He looked good going downhill as a run blocker, which is his strength. He appears to be healthy and ready to be the top backup on the Packers’ offensive line.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty