Ryan Wood and Pete Dougherty analyze the Packers' OTA practice held on Thursday, June 2.
GREEN BAY - When Clay Matthews had his exit interview with coach Mike McCarthy in January, there was no dodging the hurdle preventing an improved Green Bay Packers defense from becoming great.
Matthews, nearing 30 years old, had become something nobody ever expected. For 24 games, a season and a half that felt like an eternity, the All-Pro pass rusher was nothing more than an emergency solution. At inside linebacker, he clogged a hole in the Packers' sinking-ship defense.
His presence in the middle of the field made a difference. The Packers' run defense no longer resembled Swiss cheese. With one problem solved, a bigger one emerged.
There are unwritten rules on an NFL defense. Elite pass rushers don’t play off the line of scrimmage. It’s for the same reason elite cornerbacks don’t line up at safety. In a pass-happy league, stopping the quarterback is priority. Matthews was supposed to be a stop gap at inside linebacker, nothing more. The experiment, successful at times, had carried on long enough.
Matthews and McCarthy agreed in the exit interview. This season, the Packers would move their best pass rusher back to the edge, where he could most effectively pressure the quarterback. There was joy, relief. Even if Matthews tried to downplay his enthusiasm Thursday.
“No, I didn’t walk out of there with a smile on my face,” said Matthews, barely containing a grin as he spoke about his return to outside linebacker. “It’s always good to put the season in perspective, and understand where you’re at and what you’re going to work on moving forward. But with those exit interviews, it’s always difficult because there’s a lot of things you want to get off your chest from the season, and things you feel personally or as a team or even on a coaching level you’d like to see improve.
“As I’ve continued to say, I think (outside linebacker) is my most natural position, my most impactful position, and I think we’ll see that on a more consistent basis this season.”
If Matthews wanted to get things off his chest in that exit interview, he had every reason. It would be wasteful if the Packers failed to use him more as a pass rusher this season.
In 1,045 snaps last fall, according to Pro Football Focus, Matthews split his responsibilities into thirds. There were 406 run-defense snaps, 320 dropping into coverage. He rushed the passer on 319 snaps.
That’s life as an inside linebacker, where stuffing the run remains the most important job. Matthews dropping into coverage with the same frequency he rushes quarterbacks is not a recipe for long-term success. Not for a player who had four seasons with double-digit sacks in his first six years, earning five Pro Bowl trips along the way.
“I think that’s his natural position,” said Julius Peppers, who knows plenty about being an edge rusher. “He’s going to get back there where he can put more pressure on the quarterback. I think it’s going to help out the team in a lot of different ways.”
Matthews is getting the “majority” of his reps at outside linebacker this offseason, McCarthy said Thursday. The unknown is how long the Packers will have to wait for Matthews to be an outside linebacker in games this fall.
General manager Ted Thompson has not made inside linebacker a top priority in recent drafts, even while the position was in such dire need of an upgrade the Packers were forced to relocate Matthews. The Packers hope the future of their inside linebacker position will be a pair of fourth-round picks acquired over the past two years. Jake Ryan and rookie Blake Martinez will join Sam Barrington, a 2013 seventh-round pick, in the middle of the field.
There is youth on the Packers' inside linebacker depth chart. Inexperience. Typically, young linebackers take time to develop before earning significant snaps in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ system.
Capers was asked whether this year could be an exception. He didn’t rule anything out. He didn’t say yes, either.
“Only time will tell on those things,” Capers said. “You never really know until you get into playing games, and you have the pads on. So many times guys will look one way in OTAs, and then you get into the preseason and it’s a different game when you’ve got the pads on, you’re going full go and that type of thing. I think we’ve got some young guys there that are going to be ascending. We’ve just got to evaluate how much progress they make.”
If anyone other than Matthews has a reason to be excited about what could be a seismic shift in the Packers' defense, it’s Peppers. He was signed two years ago to line up opposite Matthews, a partner in pass rush. Instead, he has carried much of the burden himself.
Peppers held up as the Packers' top edge rusher the past two seasons. His 10.5 sacks last fall were enough to reap a Pro Bowl bid as an alternate. If Matthews moves to the edge full time, it finally could give the Packers two highly productive edge rushers.
Few assets in modern-day NFL have the value of dominant, bookend edge rushers. They formed the foundation of a stingy Denver Broncos defense that practically won Super Bowl 50 by itself last season. With Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware coming off the edge, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was stifled.
Miller and Ware did the same thing when the Packers traveled to Denver last November. The Broncos sacked quarterback Aaron Rodgers three times, and they finished with 11 quarterback hurries. Matthews saw that pass rush up close. He noticed how it made life miserable for some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
“I think you were able to see how DeMarcus and Von were able to neutralize not only a very good Carolina offense,” Matthews said, “but really their quarterback, Cam, who was the MVP. They were able to neutralize him. That was kind of the difference in the game. I think that’s what a lot of teams are striving for, especially in this league that’s become more pass happy, is finding bookends.
“Look at Kansas City – Tamba (Hali) and Justin (Houston) were able to get after the quarterback. Going back to James Harrison and (LaMarr) Woodley (with the Pittsburgh Steelers), Dwight Freeney and (Robert) Mathis (with the Indianapolis Colts). Those are guys who you remember.”
Could Matthews and Peppers be the same type of dominant bookends? Memorable? Dominant?
“Hopefully that’s the case,” Matthews said. “The great thing about us two is we can move around the line as well. We can play inside-outside. Shoot, I can even play inside ‘backer. So it should be a good deal, and hopefully we can harass quarterbacks.”
Matthews said he doesn’t regret the 24 games he spent at inside linebacker. Even if it was a bit nomadic, a dominant pass rusher roaming the middle of the field without a home, Matthews knows the time was beneficial.
He learned more about the defense, something that should benefit him late in his career. He showed his value as a versatile player, dispelling any notion of him being a one-dimensional pass rusher. It made him a better leader, lending a certain credibility when Matthews demands teammates make personal sacrifices in pursuit of a championship.
But, yes, he’s happy to be back on the edge.
“I’ve always tried to be a team player,” Matthews said. “I think I kind of exemplified that in making the switch. I don’t think many players would do that with the success I’d like to think I had on the outside, but I think it really helped this team out. You look statistically where we went as a defense both in rush statistics as well as pass, but I think at the end of the day they see my most natural and most impactful position as a pass rusher.”
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