The biggest question for the Green Bay Packers going into their bye last weekend was whether there was anything they could do at midseason to significantly improve the NFL's last-ranked run defense.
The Packers gave their answer Sunday night by unveiling a radical, unexpected midseason position change for Clay Matthews.
Their 55-14 win over the Chicago Bears was as lopsided a game as you'll see in the NFL and essentially was over 3 minutes into the second quarter. It has to be as low a point as the Bears have endured in a rivalry that dates to 1921. And it keeps the Packers (6-3) a game behind Detroit (7-2) in the NFC North Division race.
But the most important development in the bigger picture was defensive coordinator Dom Capers' decision to move Matthews from outside to inside linebacker. The Packers clearly decided they weren't going anywhere with the status quo at their weakest position, so they moved their best defensive player there and are hoping the benefits outweigh the cost to their pass rush.
"Great job by our defensive staff with the creativity, and Clay stepped in there and played at an extremely high level," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Said Matthews: "They wanted to see how it worked, and it worked. So I'm sure you'll probably see some more of it."
The experiment came out of the blue, but the more you thought about it and watched it play out Sunday night, the more it made sense. Its debut was a success — the Bears rushed for only 55 yards and a 2.3-yard average per carry — though it's hard to take too much out of a game in which the score got out of hand so quickly. But the change carries some risk, because it takes one of the team's two best pass rushers off the edge and puts him in more of a coverage role on many pass plays, or at best an inside blitzer.
The change makes sense because it also gets another of the Packers' better defensive athletes on the field. Nick Perry, who replaces Matthews at outside linebacker, is strong at the point of attack against the run and isn't as prone as Matthews to chasing run fakes when his job is to hold the edge.
The move also seemed to rejuvenate Matthews. Even after sitting out the fourth quarter, he had 11 tackles (nine solo), one sack, two tackles for loss and another sack wiped out by a personal foul.
"I got like a five-day crash course on middle linebacker over this past week," Matthews said. "Going out there, obviously some reservations about how I was going to play. But when it really comes down to it, in hindsight it's about being an athlete; will and want to; and getting to the ball. Obviously you have to know where you fit. For the most part I thought I did a good job with that tonight and will only continue to improve any time they need me there."
The questions for the longer run, assuming Capers sticks with the change, are how the Packers' pass rush will hold up with Matthews playing a subordinate role, and whether he'll embrace a position that will significantly reduce his rush chances. Pass rushers, after all, are the marquee players and biggest difference makers on defense, and getting to the quarterback has made Matthews famous.
"You have to be a team player ultimately," Matthews said, "and then selfishly of course you have to look out for yourself. There's a balance in that. I was able to have my rushes and make them count, as well as line up in the middle and get after the ball carriers. That's one of the things (the coaches) were reassuring (about), 'You're going to get your rushes and have your opportunities to make your plays.' But the reality is when you stop the run, it allows you those opportunities."
Ryan, Wes and Pete break down the Green Bay Packers' 55-14 dismantling of the Chicago Bears on Sunday night at Lambeau Field. (Nov. 9, 2014)
The move is possible because of Matthews' unusual skill set.
I remember talking to NFL scouts about Matthews going into the 2009 draft, and what stuck out most was that to a man they thought he could play any linebacker position. That's any position in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. The Packers drafted him for outside linebacker, where he would be predominantly a pass rusher, but the scouts said he also could be a good inside linebacker in that scheme, and that he could be equally effective playing strong side, weak side and middle linebacker in a 4-3.
On Sunday night, Matthews played inside linebacker alongside A.J. Hawk in the Packers' nickel defense, which is the personnel grouping they use most — about two-thirds of the snaps a season. He moved to outside linebacker in the dime, which they played a handful of snaps. They didn't play any base defense, though the best guess is he'll stay inside in that group also.
The Packers now are much more athletic at inside linebacker, the position most responsible for their run woes. At the NFL scouting combine, Matthews ran the 40 in 4.62 seconds, which according to combine data compiled by Tony Villotti of NationalFootballPost.com ranks just outside the top 10 percent of inside linebackers at the combine dating to 1999.
More importantly, his outstanding 1.49-second 10-yard split put him in the top 10 percent of the three fastest position groups in the game: cornerbacks, running backs and receivers, which are the fastest players in the game.
Many players including Julius Peppers and Randall Cobb were pleased with the victory and looking forward to having more performances like their 55-14 victory over the Bears.
So while Capers' defense loses a little athleticism replacing Matthews with Perry at outside linebacker, it makes a huge gain athletically replacing any of their inside linebackers with Matthews.
That athleticism showed up in a small way on one first-quarter run, when he met Bears halfback Matt Forte in a big hole in the line on a first-down run. Forte had room to make a move, but Matthews took him down on the spot for only a 3-yard gain. Matthews also dropped receiver Chris Matthews for an 8-yard loss on an end around late in the second quarter.
The last two months of the season will show whether the change can improve the Super Bowl hopes for a defense that came into Sunday ranked No. 25 in yards allowed and No. 19 in points.
"Especially after the bye week, where you have your self-evaluation, we realized where we need to improve and what we're good at," Matthews said. "Obviously we're good at getting after the quarterback, but that said, you can't do that unless you stop the run. We did a good job of that tonight."