Clay Matthews completed his transformation into a full-time inside linebacker with a Pro Bowl selection this season, but the position doesn’t appear to be his long-term home.
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he wants his superstar defender to play outside linebacker, the quicker the better. It could mean inside linebacker will remain high atop the Packers’ priority list in this season’s draft.
“Frankly, my goal with Clay,” McCarthy said, “is for him to play outside linebacker. That’s always been the case. I’ve never really made any bones about it. I think it shows the type of player Clay is, just as far as the type of teammate he is, to go inside and to play as much as he did really full time there.”
Matthews has been nothing short of a revelation since moving to inside linebacker midway through the 2014 season. His presence in the middle immediately upgraded the Packers’ run defense, something that continued in 2015. While the Packers still didn’t rank among the league’s top half run defenses, their No. 21 ranking was mostly because of issues defending versatile rushing offenses with mobile quarterbacks.
The Packers rarely had problems against traditional running backs. That included holding Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to an average of 56 rushing yards in their two matchups. Peterson won the NFL’s rushing title with 1,485 yards this season.
It could be difficult for the Packers to significantly reduce his inside linebacker snaps next season, considering the impact the move has made on their defense.
“There’s things specifically that he does from that position that we’ll continue to do because he’s a great weapon,” McCarthy said. “He’s so disruptive. It gives you obviously an opportunity to match him up against offensive personnel from that location. We’re obviously a lot better with him playing the outside position. He’s an outside linebacker, and we need to get back to him playing there and just going inside when needed, or just to change the targeting challenge for the offense and things like that.
“That’s the goal. We’ll see what the offseason brings and how our personnel shakes out.”
Matthews played the majority of his 1,045 snaps at inside linebacker, only dropping down as an edge rusher in the dime package. His pass-rush ability off the edge – a primary reason for five of his six Pro Bowls – wasn’t really missed this season. The Packers had one of the deeper edge-rushing arsenals in the league, led with Julius Peppers’ 10.5 sacks.
The Packers’ offseason personnel changes could give them incentive to move Matthews back to the edge. Outside linebackers Mike Neal and Nick Perry are free agents who helped provide depth this past season. Neal played 750 snaps, while Perry played 358 snaps. Perry, the former first-round pick, had 3.5 sacks in two playoff games.
Matthews eventually moving back outside could be wise for his longevity. Inside linebacker is a grueling position, especially compared to outside linebacker. In the middle, Matthews has to shed downhill blocking guards and stick his nose into heavy traffic. On the edge, he can leverage his technique as a pass rusher, and there isn’t as much physicality as inside.
But there doesn’t appear to be much need to rush Matthews back outside. He maintained some pass-rush presence up the middle. Though he finished with fewer than 10 sacks for only the third time in his seven-year career, his 6.5 sacks were more than the NFL’s other three Pro Bowl middle linebackers combined. Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman combined for four sacks in 2015.
Matthews added 1.5 sacks in the Packers’ wild-card win at Washington.
“I like the combination of Julius and Clay matching up inside,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, “because I think you have two athletic guys going against lesser pass protectors inside. We’ve gotten some real good pressure out of those situations. I think Clay is a guy as we move forward, hopefully we can move around and take advantage of his ability to make plays.
“Who knows right now. We didn’t know last year how the offseason would go. What our job will be is whoever we end up with, is finding a way to get the best guys on the field.”