GREEN BAY – Before pulling over his grey hoodie — slowly, gingerly — a thick, rainbow band across Clay Matthews’ left shoulder showed the difficulty of making it through four quarters Sunday afternoon.
It was a gnarly bruise, the leftovers of the vicious block he took six days earlier in Philadelphia. In the context of this season, it was also a worthwhile reminder.
It’s become trendy to question Matthews’ toughness in his eighth season. He missed four games this fall because of a not one, but two hamstring injuries. When he returned, it didn’t take long to find himself back on the injury report with a painful AC joint in his shoulder.
Part of that just comes with the territory of being a star pass rusher. When a player takes a $13.75 million cap hit and only has four sacks by December, there will be grumblings.
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Here, as Matthews cautiously dressed, was visual evidence of the toll this season has taken on his body. A badge of toughness.
The Packers put Matthews on a snap count during their 21-13 win Sunday against the Houston Texans, limiting him mostly to third downs. Matthews didn’t record a single tackle. But, judging the way his shoulder looked afterward, getting through four quarters Sunday was awfully impressive.
It hurt, Matthews admitted, even worse than he expected.
“I’d be lying,” Matthews said, “if I said I (expected) it to be that painful, not operative. So I was a little disappointed in that. It was tough out there, kind of rushing and playing with one arm. Any impact to it was pretty painful. But no worse for the wear, if I’m trying to be an optimist here.
“Hopefully next week, it’s that much better. But for the most part, I was in a little bit of pain.”
Matthews’ role continued where it left off in Philadelphia. He split snaps between inside linebacker and edge rusher, playing the interior in nickel and outside in dime.
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The number of inside linebacker snaps was a bit surprising, since fellow inside linebacker Jake Ryan returned from his ankle injury. Earlier this season, the Packers likely would have kept Matthews at outside linebacker and allowed Ryan and Joe Thomas to take the snaps inside.
Matthews doesn’t expect his role to change. Down the stretch of the season’s final four games, Matthews said, he’ll continue splitting time between inside linebacker and edge rusher.
“I’m fine with that,” Matthews said. “We do a good job playing to my strengths as far as bringing some pressure, allowing me to get some one-on-one matchups, and be a little more decisive as opposed to just sitting there and reading like a true inside ‘backer. There obviously comes a time for that, but it is easy when we have a lead, playing inside linebacker is a lot more fun.”
Perhaps playing the interior could help Matthews stay productive, despite his bum shoulder.
As he dressed, hanging his left shoulder limp to the side, Matthews spoke about the difficulty of rushing quarterbacks without two healthy arms. Pass rushers have to be able to use both hands, he said. Too much of an edge rusher’s game depends on using hands to shed blocks.
There is less hand-to-hand combat at inside linebacker, less grabbing. So Matthews could be stuck playing more inside linebacker than expected this season, even if rookie Blake Martinez returns from his knee injury.
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It’s a role that's propelled him to the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons, and probably what's best for the Packers defense. Perhaps it's no coincidence the Packers have allowed 13 points each of the past two weeks with Matthews in the middle.
Even more, inside linebacker could be growing on him.
“I think anytime,” Matthews said, “you just get me moving around a little bit is when I have my most production. Usually when you’re playing with a lead at inside, you can kind of dictate your defensive play calling a little bit more as opposed to when you’re down and playing play-action and some of the runs that they try to nullify you with. For the most part, I think playing both outside and inside, I think I have a skillset that allows me to play between both
“I try to be productive at either one of those positions.”
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