GREEN BAY – Eight games into his final audition before becoming a free agent next spring, the best thing that can be said about Clay Matthews this season will be hard to valuate on the open market.
Matthews has had a solid if unspectacular season. There have been some humbling moments, none more so than when the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker bypassed an open-field tackle against San Francisco 49ers receiver Pierre Garcon. Matthews looked every bit of 32 years old on that missed tackle.
But he hasn’t taken himself out of plays as much as in the past, when his propensity to chase sacks would frequently carry him out of position and open run lanes.
“That’s just part of playing good team defense,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said.
Good team defense can win games. It doesn’t get a formerly premier pass rusher paid. Sacks equate to salary on the open market.
Matthews, who has played good team defense in recent weeks, hasn’t gotten many sacks this season.
What started as a frustrating fall because of roughing-the-passer penalties in three consecutive games — two of which were highly questionable, with one eliminating a sack — has morphed into something statistically underwhelming. Matthews has 2.5 sacks in eight games, on pace to match his career low. The only other time he had five sacks in a season was 2016.
That season, Matthews only played 12 games.
He’s had his health this season, but the pass-rush productivity remains lacking. Matthews hasn’t had eight sacks in a season — much less double digits — since 2014. At 32, it would seem unlikely he ever will again, but Matthews said he believes his pass-rush production could be similar to earlier in his career in a different role.
“A hundred percent,” Matthews said. “If I’m rushing (as often as) some of these guys around the league are rushing, yeah, my numbers are up there. Obviously, you want your numbers to be higher, just for the gratification of knowing these sacks are so revered. But at the same time, you have to look at the opportunities.”
Matthews isn’t alone. Fellow veteran outside linebacker Nick Perry has only 1.5 sacks this season, and none since September. Matthews and Perry count more than $22 million against the Packers' cap this season.
Together, they’ve had as many sacks as Kyler Fackrell. Three of Fackrell’s sacks came in the same game against Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback Josh Allen.
DOUGHERTY: Stale Packers face rougher road than in 2016
“I’m not alarmed with it,” Matthews said. “I just think you have to look at how we’re being used out there. Because I think if you look at statistics, if you look at all the outside linebackers, you’d say, ‘Oh, they’re down this year.’ But the reality is, as far as in the pass-rushing situations, we’re being asked to do some different things.
“Whether that’s dropping in coverage, set some other guys up, DBs coming, inside linebackers dropping into coverage. I mean, those opportunities are fewer as far as four-man pass rush, and geared more toward creating confusion with the opposing offense.”
The operative philosophy is both edge defenders were asked to rush the passer at a much higher volume under former defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Matthews pointed to the two times the Packers sacked New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady last weekend. On both, Matthews backpedaled at the snap, dropping into coverage instead of rushing Brady.
A week earlier, Matthews had one sack and two quarterback hits against Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff.
Perry also suggested his role now is more diverse than in the past, specifically saying he drops into coverage more in Pettine’s scheme than ever under Capers.
“Have you looked at it as a team, where we’re at as sacks?” Perry responded when asked if he’s alarmed with his sack total. “Because we are a different team. Things are a little bit different. We do have a lot of sacks on the stat sheet. So we do a lot of pressure things, freeing up guys. So I’m not alarmed.”
The Packers rank sixth in the NFL with 25 sacks, surprising given their starting edge rushers have combined for only four. Predictably, the strength of their pass rush has been the interior. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark has become what coach Mike McCarthy called “a Pro Bowl player” this fall. His four sacks are tied with inside linebacker Blake Martinez and Fackrell for most on the team.
Matthews said his role now has much to do with disguising where the Packers are bringing pressure. It’s no wonder, then, that when asked whether the Packers need more sacks from their highest-paid pass rusher, Pettine quickly said no.
“For all those guys,” Pettine said, “it’s did they do their job? You don’t look for — because I think when you tell a guy something like that, and they start to chase it, sometimes it affects the integrity of the defense. If it’s a running play, and you have a guy who’s running up the field to go chase a sack, and the ball ends up cutting back behind him, he didn’t do his job. So it’s a function of them doing their jobs, and other teams are doing a good job against those guys.
“But we never look for, we need this number of sacks out of a certain player.”
Still, sacks are important. Short of turnovers, they’re the best negative play a defense can inflict on opposing offenses. If good team defense can win games, edge rushers who can sack the quarterback have lead teams to championships.
If Matthews still had double-digit sack ability, he presumably would be used still as a premier pass rusher. No dropping into coverage with a high frequency. Just get to the quarterback. But perhaps his current role does him a favor, highlighting the versatility in his game.
Matthews won’t be paid like a premier pass rusher this spring, but he has value as a jack-of-all-trades linebackers, especially with his history of playing off the ball.
“There’s so many variables after this year,” Matthews said, “as far as what the future holds. So I don’t know. I really have no idea, but I think it does add some type of value to know that I’ve shown it for two and a half years. I’ve showed that I can excel at it playing in space, and I’ve always enjoyed playing in space and having some freedom to move around and be an athlete, and at the same time rush the passer. I think it provides a dynamic that, obviously I don’t want to talk about the future here, but at the same time that a team can really take advantage of that.
“Whatever the role is, I’d like to be involved in making plays. Whatever that means.”