Matthews' production hinges on run defense
The media still crowd his locker. His commercials are no less popular. Clay Matthews is a household name, a Pro Bowl linebacker.
He just hasn't been a pass rusher.
It's not for lack of talent. Matthews, one of the NFL's elite sack artists, is fresh off an 11-sack season. Through two games this year – and especially in the Green Bay Packers' win against the Seattle Seahawks last week – Matthews' role in the middle of the defense has changed. His production is more subtle, less glamorous.
For the first time in his career, Matthews has no sacks through the season's first two weeks.
"I think my impact comes in a different scale," Matthews said, "as far as instead of hits, hurries and pressures, sacks on the quarterbacks, it comes from sound run defense and things like that. I think, statistically, you have to take a step back sometimes. You might not get the sacks, or some of the plays you're used to seeing."
Matthews has lined up at inside linebacker on 81 percent of his 137 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. That's nothing new for him. He first lined up at inside linebacker at the midway point last season, immediately boosting the Packers' defense.
He has played away from the line of scrimmage even more through the first two games this season. With starting inside linebacker Sam Barrington (foot) out for the season, it's possible Matthews' heavy workload inside won't change this season.
"I want to see Clay chase after the guy with the football," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think that's the best thing for our defense, and I think the more we move him around, I know from an offensive perspective, targeting issues will help any player's productivity. But at the same time, teams know where he's going to line up, and he's obviously a focus point for our opponents. But the more we can move him around, I think it will help us."
Matthews lined up at inside linebacker on every snap during the Packers' win against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night, their first game without Barrington. He rushed quarterback Russell Wilson only twice, the fewest such attempts in his career. His 35 snaps in pass coverage were the most in his career, according to Pro Football Focus.
The only other time Matthews had fewer than double-digit pass rushes in a game was Week 16 of 2013. Matthews entered that game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a broken thumb, and was knocked out after just 23 snaps when he broke his thumb again sacking quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Matthews knew his role against the Seahawks would be different when he showed up to practice early last week. With the Packers lining up against tight end Jimmy Graham, defensive coordinator Dom Capers told Matthews he wanted his best linebacker to help out more in pass coverage.
It was the only time in Matthews' career he played every snap at inside linebacker. That meant playing off the line of scrimmage even when the Packers were in their dime package to defend clear passing situations. He also relayed defensive play calls before the snap.
"At times we were going to have to put our best 11 players out there, specifically in coverage," Matthews said. "I'm all up for the opportunity, the challenge. And I thought it went well. For the most part, I felt like I did my job."
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith watched the Packers beat the Seahawks on Sunday night. He noticed Matthews' new role as an inside linebacker. It's a change from the last time Smith played the Packers, in the 2012 season opener. On that day, a 30-22 win for the San Francisco 49ers, Matthews had 2 1/2 sacks.
Back then, Smith said, an offense always had to know where Matthews was before the snap. As a pass rusher, he was too dangerous for someone to miss their blocking assignment. But Matthews still has an impact, Smith said.
When he watched film of the Packers' defense this week in anticipation of Monday night's game at Lambeau Field, Smith said, he saw a difference-maker who could make plays all over the field.
"Certainly, when he was lining up on the edge every play," Smith said, "you knew you were in for a long day with him. He plays extremely hard and is really talented, and has a high motor. So, yeah, you knew he was going to be coming. Now, it's different in the sense he's moving around all over the place, he's making different types of plays. So he's in the middle, and you see him running around and using his athleticism, and at the same time he's used rushing the passer and getting back to his old days.
"I think it just speaks to the type of player he is – both physically and mentally – that he's able to handle it."
Whether Matthews can handle a full-time inside linebacker role throughout an entire season remains to be seen.
Football takes a physical toll on the body no matter where a player lines up, but inside linebacker is especially demanding. Outside linebackers take more side angles to ball carriers, pinching down the line of scrimmage. Blocks are often glancing blows. For inside linebackers, contact is usually a head-on collision. Ball carriers are running downhill.
Second-year linebacker Jayrone Elliott has played inside linebacker on the Packers' scout defense. He knows the toll it can take. While Elliott said he'd be open to anything coaches asked of him, he can see why an outside linebacker would hesitate to move inside.
"I don't really want to do it," Elliott said, "because it'll shorten my career."
Initially, Matthews has said, he too was hesitant to move inside. With the physical pounding, lack of premier statistical production and salary values placed on pass rushers around the league, there were plenty of reasons for pause. But Matthews hasn't grumbled once about his increased role in the middle of the Packers' defense, at least not publicly.
That doesn't make it any easier for a pass rusher to accept fewer rushes for a role in the middle of the field, where players take a physical beating. Matthews was asked Thursday whether he would've been content with his new role earlier in his career.
"I think it's just about the team's needs right now," Matthews said. "It's a hard question to answer, because obviously I wasn't put in that position (earlier in my career). But at the same time, you've seen the results and what's come of playing all over the place, specifically inside. Statistically speaking, our defense has improved since last year at the midway point. Can't argue with that. Can't argue with the fact we're 2-0."