Clay Matthews 'rejuvenated' back on the outside

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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"You want to be the best, and put on a show each and every play. You want everyone to know this is who I am." - Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews

GREEN BAY - Clay Matthews loves sacking the quarterback, flexing his bulging biceps and prancing back to the huddle.

He relishes success almost as much as he detests failure, even if only the perception of it.

Having reached age 30, perhaps the mid-point of his career with the Green Bay Packers, Matthews remains a man hell-bent to discourage those who are paid to neutralize him.

“It’s cliché, but I hate losing more than I love to win,” Matthews said in an extended interview early in training camp about how he goes about his job. “And I truly hate when someone feels, whether it’s true or not, that they’ve gotten the best of you. Whether that’s through four quarters of a game or a pass rush, whatever it is.”

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Matthews pays attention to what’s being said about him in today’s vast new world of media and social commentary. Every NFL Sunday becomes a vehicle of self-expression, not only for millions worldwide but also the game’s superstar players.

“You’re competitors on such a high level now with so much visibility,” said Matthews. “You want to be the best, and put on a show each and every play. You want everyone to know this is who I am.”

It took less than a year for Matthews to become a marked man. He hit double-digit sacks as a rookie in 2009, made the all-pro team as well as one of the top-10 defensive plays in Super Bowl history in 2010 and bailed the Packers out with his unselfish move to inside linebacker over the last season and a half.

Now Matthews embarks on his eighth season back where he belongs, the right outside-linebacker position where once again some left tackles will be quaking in their cleats before facing Green Bay.

“Well, yeah, that’s what I try to do,” Matthews said of his desire to intimidate the opposition. “You want to be that guy in game week that offensive coordinators go, ‘OK, we’ve got to keep two on him.’ The tackle will never admit it but you want him in his head to be, like, ‘Oh, (expletive).’ ”

Matthews takes the field on Sundays with that long blond hair flowing from beneath his Riddell Speed helmet. At his waist is a little white towel, so when he cruises across the field the hair and towel create an arresting image.

“It’s mainly for aesthetics,” he said. “If you look good you feel good you play good. If you look at yourself on film and you look like trash, you’re, like, ‘Oh, no.’ I’ve come a long way since my rookie year.”

You’ll never catch Matthews wearing sleeves, either. He has never noticed the cold during a game.

His thigh pads, knee pads and shoulder pads are about as small as they can get. His shoe size is 14. He pops in his green mouthpiece before every play.

Matthews, 6 feet 3 inches and 254 pounds, spends 12 months of every year trying to be fast, fresh and powerful for the game days that define a career. Since running a 40-yard dash of 4.57 seconds during pro day at Southern California in spring 2009, he hasn’t run another.

The No. 52 jersey looks vacuum-sealed to his torso. Before commercial shoots producers tell him his jersey size must be 2X. “I say you couldn’t be more wrong,” he said. “My jersey feels tighter without shoulder pads than it does with.”

If you were to observe Matthews pre-kickoff, there wouldn’t be much to see. He’s not that guy who needs to be swatted up-side the head or pounded on the shoulders to get ready.

His demeanor is one of processed calm. After seven seasons, he knows when to go and when not to go.

Matthews should be a pro’s pro, with a father (Clay) who played linebacker for 19 seasons at a high level and an uncle (Bruce) who played center and guard well enough to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And, Matthews most assuredly is. The fourth-quarter fumble that he and Ryan Pickett forced in the 45th Super Bowl with the Packers on the ropes against Pittsburgh was the result of his pre-snap call based on two weeks of tape study and having the intellect (Wonderlic score of 27) to tie it all together.

“It’s ridiculous the analytics there are,” said Matthews. “If there’s data that I deem 70%, 80%, I play the percentages. There are tendency-beaters, and they (opponents) do that sometimes. But you don’t go out there (saying), ‘We’ll wing it.’ ”

It didn’t take long before Dom Capers, his only NFL defensive coordinator, came to feature Matthews. He trusted Matthews, which in turn meant a degree of freedom for Matthews.

“But when you say freedom to me it sounds like you’re ad-libbing out there,” he said. “That’s not the case. If he’s giving me freedom it’s because he has a play designed for me to blitz a certain way or have a two-way go. That’s your chance.”

Matthews turns back to the line of scrimmage after receiving the front and coverage calls from the signal-calling inside linebacker in the huddle. He knows the left tackle will be in his way. His pre-snap objective is spotting others with a chance to take shots at him.

“Forget the quarterback,” he said. “I like looking at the guys who can potentially block me right off the bat. Is there a tight end off (the ball)? Is there a (wide) receiver close? Is there anybody that can crack back or cut me out? If not, I can really tee off.”

He must be alert for checks made by teammates behind him or even the outside linebacker on the other side.

Under Capers, Matthews’ stance is inside foot forward. Other teams, such as the Broncos, do it the other way.

The ball always is in Matthews’ sight but isn’t necessarily his focus. If his location is well outside the tackle he will pay more attention to the tackle’s first movement even knowing he’ll be late off the ball if his opponent’s late.

Let’s say it’s just the tackle and Matthews on the outside of the formation. In every situation, one defensive player is designated to have force responsibility. In this case, that man would be Matthews.

As a rule of thumb, the outside linebackers either are squeezing or spilling the ball carrier on running plays. In the base defense, they’re more often squeezing. In sub defenses, they’re more often spilling, especially if a tight end also is in front of them. To spill means stringing out the play by making the ball carrier run laterally.

Technically, Matthews would be attempting to squeeze (set the edge) an outside run to his side by forcing the ball carrier inside. Despite a 50-pound disadvantage in weight, his job must be to crash into the tackle while maintaining outside leverage.

“If you can fire off into them and the back has to turn back in, great, I did my job,” Matthews said. “But I try to be difficult for the guy (tackle) as opposed to being just a machine that’s doing the same thing over and over.”

If Matthews sets a hard edge on one play, he might slip around the block on the next. He wants to create indecision, perhaps prompting the tackle to think, ‘OK, this guy just stuck his face in mine, and then the next play he jumped around me and got a TFL (tackle for loss). Now I’ve got to play on my heels.’”

It’s risky, and too much of it can undermine the integrity of a defense.

“They always tell you, if you’re going to take a chance you better go make a play,” said Matthews. “If you’re going to rush and you’re in coverage, get the sack. If you’re going to go underneath a block, make the play.”

Matthews probably is even more dangerous chasing runs to the other side of the field. Some offenses try to slow him with a brush block from a skill-position player, or by calling bootlegs, reverses or other misdirection plays previously to keep him honest.

He remembered chasing down Chicago’s Matt Forte from behind last season, and the third-and-1 fumble he forced vaulting the line at Cincinnati in 2013 that the Packers returned for a touchdown.

“That was like Troy Polamalu,” Matthews said. “That’s fun when they don’t account for you and you’re not supposed to be doing this type of stuff and you can still disrupt plays.”

He added: “I can get off the block. I can make a TFL. You just have to stay ready at the point of attack. I play the run just fine.”

When conversation turns to pass rush, Matthews punctuates his words by making various sounds, including a jet taking off.

“I think my biggest attribute is my quick-twitch ability,” he said, rolling in a “whoosh” for effect. “I’m not going to say I have one go-to move. It’s my burst, change of direction and speed coming out of cuts and plants. I feel like some guys can’t keep up with that.”

Matthews wins with speed rush, bull rush, an inside rip, a shake inside and go back outside, slapping the tackle’s arms down and dipping outside, and a spin move.

“Anybody can run around but then you get pushed (wide),” said Matthews. “When you can flip those hips around, that’s when you slap the ball out. But there’s so much going on.

“What if it’s a three-step (drop)? What if he’s rolling out the other way? What if the guard’s going to come blast you? What if the back’s chipping?

“A lot of times you use all four quarters to size a guy up, like a pitcher throwing a fastball high and inside to get them to respect the speed. Well, you didn’t win that one? You’re right, but he now knows I can run 1.49 (seconds for 10 yards) off the line.”

Getting off the line is essential. First contact between Matthews and the tackle usually occurs between his third and fifth step.

“What is a tackle told to do?” he said. “Their whole job is to hold you and not get caught.”

If that 310-pound tackle can’t grab Matthews, he can’t protect the quarterback. The winner often is the player who gets his hands inside on the other’s chest plate first.

“You want to keep their hands off you so you’re just timing up their hands,” said Matthews. “Different guys have different methods. You have some guys who want to punch you, and that’s high-risk, high-reward. They’ll defibrillate you at one point but at the next point you can beat them with a hand swipe or something.”

Of the nine sacks on which Matthews was given full or half credit last season, at least three came on stunts. Last year, teammate Julius Peppers said he had no love for stunts, but Matthews does.

At times, Matthews can absorb considerable punishment if he charges inside and is gored by a 330-pound guard or center who isn’t fooled and is waiting to punch him. Overall, he likes running the choreographed loops and crosses with teammates because his quickness can torment short-setting guards who are much more accustomed to handling defensive tackles.

Matthews is less enthusiastic, of course, about the extra attention he has encountered as the Packers’ premier pass rusher almost his entire career. Based on Journal Sentinel statistics, he was double-teamed (stunts excluded) on 35.2% of dropbacks in 2010, 37.8% in ’11 and 36.2% in ’12. That number has been about 25% the past three seasons.

Specifically, he recalled the frustrations of playing against New Orleans several times.

“The guard would always just fan out and take away the inside, and the tackle would be, ‘You’ve only got one way to go now unless you want to go through me. Good luck,’” Matthews said. “Then with (Drew) Brees it was, like, ‘I haven’t even gotten off the line yet and you’ve already completed a slant.’

“There’s some teams, you go, ‘Cut me a break.’ ”

His keen preference is to play the right side, which excluding the 1 ½ seasons spent at inside linebacker probably has been his position two-thirds of the time compared to one-third on the left.

He played the right side almost exclusively this summer. He feels “rejuvenated” by the return to his favorite position and is eager to restore some of the luster to his name.

Pro Football Weekly, in its annual ranking of the NFL’s top 50 players regardless of position, placed Matthews at No. 37 in June just three years after he reached his high-water mark of No. 18.

“No, I don’t think I’ve slipped at all,” he said. “Inside linebacker isn’t a glamorous position. Hitting the quarterback and dancing and being Super Bowl MVP is a glamorous position. I think I’ll have more opportunities to elevate my status.

“There will come a day when I go to camp and I’m, like, ‘Do I let the young bucks get a few more reps?’ But I don’t feel I’m at a point now where I’m switching to just being a third-down pass guy. I still feel young, fast, healthy.”

Matthews battled hamstring woes for several seasons but they seem to have abated. His only surgery was on his right thumb in December 2013. He has had a handful of concussions but doesn’t seem overly concerned.

As his eighth season nears, Matthews aims to continue carrying on the family tradition in every way except one.

“I’m not playing 11 more years,” he said. “You can put that on the record.”

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