Position change has Matthews changing plays
You don't want to get carried away with Clay Matthews' play at inside linebacker after only two games.
But you have to wonder if he might have at least been in the conversation for NFL defensive player of the year if the Green Bay Packers had made their ingenious decision to move him there at the start of the season rather than in their ninth game.
Matthews still is making splash plays in his new role — he had a sack, a tackle for loss and two quarterback hits Sunday in the Packers' 53-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. But even without them, his position change has profoundly improved the defense because of his disruptive play in the middle of the field.
On more than a few Eagles runs Sunday, Matthews showed that he often makes a difference at inside linebacker regardless of whether he makes the tackle. That's because he has the size (255 pounds), explosiveness and instincts to attack the line of scrimmage, which at a minimum cuts off running lanes. The Packers haven't had an inside linebacker playing consistently at or behind the line for years.
The first play Matthews showed up on Sunday's game video was on the Eagles' second possession. On a second-and-7 from the Eagles' 33, Matthews was lined up at inside linebacker, about five yards off the line of scrimmage, when halfback LeSean McCoy took a handoff and ran left.
Matthews attacked his gap, which was outside the offensive tackle, and crashed into pulling left guard Evan Mathis almost three yards behind the line. That is what they call playing downhill.
Matthews made the tackle because McCoy tripped over Matthews' legs, and he also drew a holding penalty on Mathis, who went to the Pro Bowl last season. But even without the tackle, Matthews changed the play because he took away McCoy's options. The halfback had to turn up field, into traffic, because Matthews attacked his blocker rather than run around him.
Matthews soon thereafter displayed uncommon athleticism for his position. On the first play of the Eagles' next possession he again started about five yards off the line and attacked his gap. Only McCoy's outstanding running talent allowed him to jump cut and avoid Matthews at the line, but Matthews still chased him down after a 5-yard gain. You just don't see that from an inside linebacker very often.
Later, on a series early in the second quarter, Matthews disrupted three runs in the span of six plays. He didn't make the tackle on any of them, but by pressing the line of scrimmage, he cut off running lanes and allowed teammates to make the tackle. It's worth noting the Eagles averaged a manageable 3.9 yards a rush in the first half, when it was at least somewhat still a game.
On first down on that series, Matthews popped right guard Matt Tobin at the line of scrimmage, the Eagles' 20. McCoy had to turn up field and into safety Morgan Burnett, who dropped him for a 3-yard gain.
The next play, Matthews wiped out a pulling Tobin at the line on a power sweep, which cut off McCoy's path to the corner. McCoy is an excellent back and still picked up 8 yards on his cut back, but if Matthews hadn't taken away the edge, there was room outside for a possible big gainer.
And four plays later, on second-and-6, Matthews attacked an inside gap, this time hitting the pulling Tobin a full three yards behind the line. That forced McCoy to stay deep in the backfield as he ran to the edge, which strung out the play and allowed the Packers' pursuit to drop him for no gain.
That kind of playmaking contrasts with the last couple of seasons, when the Packers' inside linebackers more often than not hit their gaps a yard or two or even more on their side of the line. That happened, for instance, to A.J. Hawk on one play on that same second-quarter drive.
On a second down, the Eagles ran Darren Sproles up the middle. Right tackle Lane Johnson shot out to block the 235-pound Hawk, who tried to cover the gap to his right by sliding sideways rather than attacking it straight on. The two engaged almost five yards downfield, which gave Sproles room to run either way. With Julius Peppers closing from the outside, Sproles cut inside and picked up 13 yards.
PROTECT THIS HOUSE
The Packers' offensive line has protected Aaron Rodgers especially well the past couple of weeks.
What an advantage playing at Lambeau Field, where the crowd knows to stay quiet when the Packers have the ball. That allows the linemen to time the cadence and get off right at the snap, rather than watch the ball and get off a split-second later, like they have to in noisy road venues.
The Eagles sacked Rodgers only once, and tight end Richard Rodgers was responsible for that. They didn't hit him besides that play. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga faced outside linebacker Connor Barwin, who came into the game with 10 1/2 sacks, and shut him out.
Barwin dropped into coverage plenty, but when he rushed he didn't get much of a sniff of Rodgers. Just watch on Jordy Nelson's 64-yard catch on the game's third play. Barwin is lined up well outside Bulaga and has a running start when they meet. But Bulaga stands him up with a good punch to the chest, and Barwin gets no push. Rodgers is able to set his feet and throw on time and on balance.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari also had a good game. One play worth mentioning was first down with 13:01 left in the first half. Eddie Lacy's run was to the right, which left Bakhtiari blocking on the backside.
Even though the run was going the other way, Bakhtiari stuck on defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, who was pursuing the play. Bakhtiari kept blocking and pushed him back a couple of yards, which gave Lacy a nice cutback lane when the Eagles stuffed up the play side of the run. Lacy picked up a nice first-down gain of 6 yards.
That's why you keep blocking, you never know when the play might come your way.
HIGH ON GUION
The Packers are getting their money's worth and then some from defensive lineman Letroy Guion.
They signed the former Minnesota Vikings player to a one-year contract that's paying him $1 million in salary and bonuses, and early in the season it didn't look like he would do much to help them. He missed training camp because of a pulled hamstring and didn't play well the first couple weeks of the regular season as he worked into game shape.
However, as the season has gone on, he's been one of the Packers' best two defensive linemen, along with Mike Daniels. Guion (6-4, 315) plays primarily on run downs and looked like B.J. Raji on a first down late in the first quarter when he stalemated Tobin at the line of scrimmage, shed the block and tackled McCoy for a 3-yard gain.
But Guion showed a little pass rush, too, on the Eagles' first series when he knocked Tobin aside with the old Reggie White hump move and dropped Mark Sanchez for a 7-yard sack. That took the Eagles out of field goal position.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty