'Evolution of offenses' limits Matthews' production
The question was fair. Through six games, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews hasn't looked like himself. One sack, 14 tackles and several blown assignments on zone reads this season have left those outside the Packers locker room wondering what's wrong.
Matthews wasn't on the Packers injury report Wednesday, but it was natural to wonder. Could the injury-prone linebacker have another ailment?
"I feel good," he said. "I feel healthy. When I'm out there, it's all go."
For Matthews, "all go" means game-changing plays. Which only makes the lack of production harder to explain.
In his six seasons, Matthews has never had an early slump like this. His tackles and sacks are the fewest through six games of any season he's played in Green Bay. On Sunday, he finished a game with no tackles for only the fourth time in his career.
Matthews knows the numbers. He sees the empty stat line. Week after week, the four-time Pro Bowler has left the stadium frustrated he hasn't made a bigger impact.
"As a competitor, of course I'd love to have 10 tackles, 10 sacks," Matthews said. "It doesn't matter what it is. I'd love to be on the board by making that impact. But at the same time, yeah, you know how it is. Sacks come in bunches, and they'll come for me.
"I've proven over the years that when I'm on the field, I'll make my plays. That'll happen."
Matthews came up with one reason for the diminished activity. "The evolution of offenses," he called it. Specifically, the introduction of zone reads.
Opposing offenses have keyed Matthews' aggressiveness – the trait that makes him one of the league's elite pass rushers – and turned it against him. Watch the film, and Matthews will be crashing down the line of scrimmage to defend the dive while a ballcarrier circles around him. In these moments, containment is compromised. Big plays follow.
It happened in the third quarter Sunday. On second-and-5, Matthews bit on a handoff. The linebacker was over the A gap when Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill took off around the left end for a 40-yard run.
Tannehill ran to the spot Matthews vacated.
"You're playing so much into this zone-read offense that you're always reading the quarterback and the running back and seeing what they're throwing," Matthews said. "Your eyes are continually in the backfield. When you have those opportunities, they're few and far between to get after the quarterback, that you're focused on one thing. It presents problems."
The natural reaction is to slow down, react instead of attack.
On another second-half play, Matthews came unblocked off the snap. He had a chance to blow up the play in the backfield, but the zone read made him pause.
The halfback took Tannehill's handoff up the gut, away from Matthews.
"With so much of the zone read, a kind of read-and-react type offense, it definitely slows down players like myself and really guys within the front seven of this defense," Matthews said. "… Sometimes you just have to play your role and fit within the scheme. It's not fun to leave a game and feel like you didn't create an impact that you're used to creating week in and week out, but sometimes I think you just have to come to that realization."
What does Matthews need to change? How can he adjust to offenses that have adjusted to him?
Matthews didn't have an answer for that Wednesday. He isn't lacking confidence, either.
"Just keep being me," Matthews said. "Just keep being me, and those plays will come to me."
Matthews' reputation still precedes him.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton mentioned two players his offense needs to key on when it travels to Green Bay for a game noon Sunday. One was Julius Peppers, still a legend in his native Carolinas. The other was Matthews.
Newton doesn't care about the stats. The film means more than what shows up on paper. Yes, Newton said, Matthews is still dangerous.
"Statistically, that can be jaded to a degree," Newton said. "You watch him on film, he's still disrupting the run game as well as the passing game by getting to the quarterback. No matter if he gets the sack or tackle, his presence is certainly felt."
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