On the edge, Clay Matthews was a natural.
In his first five seasons, the Green Bay Packers veteran proved he was one of the NFL's best outside linebackers. But his knowledge of the game was limited, Matthews said.
He didn't fully grasp the Packers' defense until moving to inside linebacker last season.
"When you're a rookie," Matthews said, "sometimes it's more beneficial to just simply learn your position than it is to know the entire defense. And then as your football IQ increases, you begin to learn about the guys around you, where other people are fitting."
Matthews had nothing more than pure instincts when he lined up at inside linebacker for the first time against the Chicago Bears last fall. It was enough for Matthews to finish with 11 tackles, one sack and an 8-yard tackle for loss.
Overnight, he transformed the Packers defense into one of the NFL's better units. Matthews played so consistently well down the stretch, he received one All-Pro vote at inside linebacker. Still, he wanted to learn the nuances of playing inside linebacker, rather than relying on natural ability.
He spent the offseason learning his new position. Since that first game against the Bears, Matthews said, he's come a long way.
"Learning why on certain plays I'm fitting a certain way," Matthews said. "Spilling, squeezing, where my safeties are coming down, what offenses are looking with inside linebackers. Not only that, but understanding now when I have my D-line in front of me, what their job is.
"It's helped my understanding of the defense tremendously, and obviously makes you play faster."
Matthews' inability to practice because of "knee soreness" halted his transition, at least temporarily. After missing the past week of practices, Matthews said he hopes to return in time to play in the Packers' preseason opener Thursday at the New England Patriots.
He also admitted that goal may be unrealistic.
There's no need to stretch Matthews in the preseason, coach Mike McCarthy said. He isn't worried about lost training camp reps stunting Matthews' growth at inside linebacker.
"I think Clay's learning obviously started April 15, when the players came back," McCarthy said. "So the opportunity to go through the whole offense primarily in the inside linebacker room has been very beneficial. By the time he left here in June, he was light years ahead of where he was at the end of the season."
As he gained experience last fall, perhaps the most important thing Matthews learned was how to still have an impact rushing the passer despite playing off the line of scrimmage.
Of his team-high 11 sacks, 8 1/2 came after the move. In those eight games, he failed to record a sack only twice.
Matthews said "there's not much that's different" rushing the passer as an inside linebacker. it's still about matchups, learning how to exploit specific players. As last year showed, he still does that as well as anybody.
"Certain guys have certain abilities," Matthews said. "Tackles are obviously, generally, are a little better athletes than the guards are. The guards are a little more stouter. So you've just got to understand the problems that each one presents, as well as the center. Part of that is understanding what you're trying to accomplish, and how you need to beat them.
"As with every pass rusher, and the person he's pass-rushing, it's a 1-on-1 matchup. Aside from talent and skill, a lot of it is based on want, and wanting to get to the quarterback. I like getting after the quarterback, I like disrupting him. If they give me the opportunity, I'm going to try to make the most of it."