It’s unusual to see a goose egg pop up next to Clay Matthews’ name in the stat column.
The Green Bay Packers linebacker, who last week was voted to his sixth Pro Bowl in seven NFL seasons, is typically sprawled across the box score. Yet, Matthews has been shut out the past two weeks after failing only twice before to register at least one tackle in 100 regular-season games.
That's assuming you go by the official game book.
If you go you ask Matthews Stats and Info, he combined with defensive lineman Mike Daniels on a tackle of Arizona running back David Johnson for no gain on the second play from scrimmage in Sunday’s 38-8 loss to the Cardinals. The Packers’ coaches concurred, crediting him with a half-tackle in their stat package.
“They didn't give me a tackle on the second play of the game. I shared it with Mike Daniels but they took it away,” Matthews jested Thursday.
Half-tackle or no half-tackle, Matthews’ recent quiet spell is confounding. It’s true the Packers are using him more like a traditional inside linebacker than a year ago, but he has played close to all the defensive downs this season. On Sunday, Matthews was on the field for 48 of the defense’s 58 snaps.
A week before, Matthews also went without any recorded stats on 72 defensive snaps in the Packers’ 30-20 win over Oakland. His one hit on Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is the only statistical contribution he has had in that time.
While you can point to a change in position or responsibility, Matthews agrees more is expected from him if the Packers are going to have a lengthy playoff run.
“I need to find a way to be more impactful,” Matthews added. “It's not for a lack of not being where I'm supposed to, and not doing my job. It's just playmakers have to continue to show up. You can't have games where you have one or zero tackles despite being disruptive.”
It’s all part of what’s been a strange second half for Matthews. First, he sprained his ankle in Denver on Nov. 1, an injury that limited him in practice until this week. While battling through that, Matthews went seven games without a sack, the longest drought of his career.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers isn’t as concerned about the lack of statistics as much as his linebacker’s health entering the final stretch of the season. Both understand how important Matthews is to the execution of the scheme in his current role.
Unlike last year when Capers frequently blitzed him from inside linebacker, Matthews is dropping into coverage a lot more often. In fact, his snaps are nearly even between the amount of times he has rushed the passer (311) and played in coverage (305) this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
In prior years, he rushed more than three times as often with 2,628 pass-rushing snaps to 806 coverage reps.
“There’s certain times we’ve had to use him more as a prototypical inside linebacker where a year ago those last eight games, you aren’t using him as much,” Capers said. “I think he’s a much better inside linebacker now because of his experience. I look at our first Viking game. I thought he impacted that game in terms of being sudden, quick and tackles for a loss, being able to fill gaps against a back that if you’re not doing that, he can make you pay.”
The Packers will see that back, Adrian Peterson, again when the Packers (10-5) face Minnesota (10-5) in a game that will decide the NFC North champion on Sunday night. Matthews didn’t have a sack in Green Bay’s 30-13 win over the Vikings last month, but his productivity against the run was arguably even more important.
Matthews had two key tackles for a loss of Peterson, who was held to only three rushing yards on seven first-down carries. His 45 total rushing yards were his third fewest of the season. As you might expect, the Vikings have lost all three games this season when Peterson has been held under 50 rushing yards.
Inside linebacker coach Scott McCurley acknowledged Thursday that Matthews’ shutout against Arizona is “not what you want for a guy like him.” The more disruptive Matthews is, the more it helps the rest of the defense. This Sunday, everyone hopes the Matthews that helped contain Peterson resurfaces.
“Do you want to see nothing on the sheet? No. And he doesn’t want that, either,” McCurley said. “But he needs to look forward to this weekend and being the same type of player he was in the first game because that’s all that matters. Right now, we’ve got to stop '28' in the run game, limit the quarterback and what he can do in the pass game and with his feet. This will be a big week for all of us.”
The Packers have tried to do more to get Matthews involved in the pass rush whether it’s deploying him off the edge in the dime defense or stemming him outside in their modified nickel package, which consists of five rushers on the line of scrimmage and leaves rookie linebacker Jake Ryan alone inside.
As Capers attests, the key is getting Matthews healthy. When you’re outside, a small injury can be a big impediment to planting your foot in the ground and getting acceleration. Across the board that’s reflected in the pass-rushing numbers of the Packers’ battered outside linebackers.
The Packers’ four primary edge rushers — Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry — have just six sacks from the outside in nine games since the bye after combining for 15 ½ sacks in the first six games. Everyone except for Peppers has been a mainstay on the injury report in the second half.
Individually, Matthews has only one sack over his last 205 pass rushes in the last 10 games.
“There were two, three weeks where he couldn’t really plant and accelerate off that thing,” Capers said. “With a guy like Clay, you’re trying to, ‘Let’s get him to the game’ because you need him. You need him out there. Now, I think he feels a little bit better, which I feel good about going into the last game of the season and the playoffs with him feeling good physically.”
Matthews says his foot began feeling back to normal last week. Now with every game growing in importance, he hopes it translates to increased contributions during the final leg of the season.
“Dom always talks about there’s a few plays in the game that change the course of the game,” Matthews said. “I pride myself on being that guy who does it once or twice in a game, whether it’s the TFLs from the last Minnesota game or whatever it may be, I’ve got to find a way to show up. And I will.”
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