It has been exactly two months since Clay Matthews recorded his last sack for the Green Bay Packers.
The seven-game lull is the longest of the seventh-year linebacker’s career, lasting three more than his previous sack-less streak at the start of last season. Historically, it would have been difficult to envision Dom Capers’ pressure-oriented defense weathering such a lengthy drought.
The defense has done a lot more than simply survive. Capers' unit is playing some of its best football of the season with Matthews entrenched in the middle of the field. The five-time Pro Bowler has gone from one of the NFL’s top pass-rushers to one of its best overall defensive playmakers.
This week, the Packers finally acknowledged what has been visible for the past year when they listed Matthews as their starting Mack linebacker for the first time instead of as one of their two outside linebackers on the depth chart.
A day later, it was announced that Matthews has received the second-highest Pro Bowl votes at inside linebacker in the fan balloting. His 130,161 votes are second only to Carolina’s Luke Kuechly (193,252) with one week remaining.
For years, Matthews’ value was based solely on his ability to pressure the quarterback. Today, he uses a different metric to judge his performance.
“What’s funny is you go from a position where there’s a lot of flashy plays made whether it be the TFLs (tackles for loss), the sacks, quarterback hits, pressures, occasionally dropping into coverage,” said Matthews, who has 4 1/2 sacks this season. “Now, I wouldn’t say forget that, but substitute that for sound run defense and a good overall defense. You look at how the middle linebacker is pretty much involved in a lot more plays than the outside linebacker. You kind of have a hand in each of these plays.”
Former Packers defensive back Charles Woodson used to implore Capers to use Matthews in a more dynamic capacity instead of keeping him locked in one spot. The team finally moved him inside last November with the run defense in shambles.
What Matthews lacked in polish, he made up for with instincts. The change benefited both the defense and Matthews, who still finished with 8 1/2 sacks in the second half of the season. The infusion of confidence had the entire defense playing faster, teammates noticed.
“If anybody could’ve done it, it was him,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “He learned it so fast. It was so natural to him because he’s a good tackler and he’s fast sideline-to-sideline. It translated so well for him because he’s a fast, big guy and not many people can block him.”
Capers didn’t go into the offseason bent on keeping Matthews inside, but the decision was made easy for him when the only substantial acquisition was fourth-round pick Jake Ryan. Still, none of this would have worked if Matthews wasn’t on board with the game plan.
Seeing the difference it made having him in the middle of the field, he embraced the role from the start of the offseason program. Capers always felt Matthews could be a Pro Bowler regardless of whether it was outside or inside linebacker. Now, it was time to put it to the test.
“I think by the end of the last year when we had success as a defense,” said inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley of when Matthews fully embraced the change. “Really in the offseason, he committed to it. You could see it. The way he wanted to understand it more and really grow in that position and not just be that guy who’s just moved in because of necessity, but because he can have some success in there and be impactful.”
After giving him only days to learn the position at first, the defensive coaching staff brought Matthews along like any developing inside linebacker, starting from square one. The key, McCurley says, was balancing the Xs and Os of the position and still giving Matthews the freedom to maximize his instincts.
The overall improvements might be hard to see with just a quick glance at the stat sheet. The 19th-ranked defense took a hit after giving up nearly 1,500 combined yards in three midseason games against San Diego, Denver and Carolina. Still, the Packers are allowing the sixth fewest points this season (19.8 points per game).
Matthews’ importance only increased after Sam Barrington was lost for the season with a foot injury he sustained in the Packers’ opener against Chicago. Matthews started the next 10 games next to another converted outside linebacker, Nate Palmer, before Ryan took over last week in Detroit.
Capers admits the opportunities for Matthews to get after the quarterback have been negated over the last month due to a series of close games. The Packers' only real opportunity to blitz liberally came in last month's 30-13 win over Minnesota.
Matthews needs only five more tackles to eclipse his previous career-high of 59. His 10 tackles for loss lead the Packers and are tied for 18th most in the NFL. Capers argues that statistic alone is just as important as sacks to the overall success of his defense.
“I think he's a totally different player just for the wide range of responsibility and capabilities that he gives us,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He's an impactful (player). He's just such a destructive player, and he causes a lot of disruption and that's a big benefit for our defense.”
No one is entirely certain what the future holds for Matthews at inside linebacker. The Packers are rich with edge rushers, but Julius Peppers turns 36 next month, and Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Andy Mulumba (restricted) will be free agents this offseason.
However long Capers, 65, remains Green Bay’s defensive coordinator, he plans to keep applying the same formula of getting the best 11 players on the field. In recent years, that philosophy has resulted in several defensive players making a position change.
Will Matthews stay inside in the future?
“You don’t know. That’s the nature of our business,” Capers said. “One thing that I learned through all these years is you don’t ever say never. Better keep your mind open and we’ll look at the different possibilities, but so much of it is who you end up with.”
Matthews no longer sees the defense just as an outside linebacker. His eyes are open to what his presence in the middle of the field means. Pass-rushing is an art, but his current job responsibility has given him a big picture view of what Capers is trying to accomplish.
He’s no longer just a spoke in the wheel. Now, Matthews is driving the entire defense.
“At the inside, you’re going against every guy, every tight end, every receiver, the backs, the quarterbacks. You’re directly involved with that,” Matthews said. “It allows you to see more of the moving pieces that need to come together to make a good defense. Generally, that’s why you see a lot of those middle linebackers are leaders because they’re more directly involved in the communication or the play, in general.
“I’m enjoying it. I like the challenge and moving around, and doing all that fun stuff. As long as we’re winning games and the defense is playing well, there’s not room for compliant.”
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