One game after teammates passed on voting him a playoff captain, linebacker Clay Matthews showed everybody Sunday what he means to the Green Bay Packers.
His 2.5 sacks in Green Bay's 20-3 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sparked one of the team's most dominant defensive performances in coach Mike McCarthy's tenure. Bucs quarterback Josh McCown was under constant pressure – the Packers registered seven sacks and 12 quarterback hits – and the offense shadowed his struggles with eight punts, six there-and-outs and no touchdowns.
Matthews finished with his highest sack total since the second game of the 2012 season despite being limited in practice during the week and wearing a brace protecting his biceps during the game. McCarthy was asked Monday if he thought Matthews' motivation came from a perceived snub for defensive captain, an honor that was given to first-year linebacker Julius Peppers and fifth-year safety Morgan Burnett.
"I don't think so. I don't know that for a fact," McCarthy said. "Frankly, I was in a conversation with Clay a few days before I decided to make that decision, and it was something that Clay brought up. So this was something that was being kicked around. I think Clay sees the big picture. I think it's important to understand the dynamics of every locker room."
In the Packers locker room, McCarthy said, Burnett is considered a "young" and "ascending" player. Teammates call him the "quarterback" of Green Bay's defense. His communication from the safety position is vital to organizing the Packers' defense before each snap.
Peppers, an eight-time Pro Bowler, quickly demanded teammates' respect when he arrived from Chicago as a free agent this offseason. Coaches and peers lauded a pregame speech he made before the Packers beat the Bears 55-14 in November at Lambeau Field. Peppers has been productive on the field, too, with two interceptions returned for touchdowns, three fumbles recovered, four forced fumbles and seven sacks.
"You could see by the way the voting goes, just based off the numbers, just kind of the way the locker room looks at their leadership," McCarthy said of Peppers and Burnett. "I think it's great, the way it panned out, and I don't think Clay is taken aback. It's not a contest. Clay Matthews is a leader. We have more than six leaders on our team, but you can only vote for six."
Matthews leads the Packers with 10 sacks this season. It's his fourth double-digit sack season, tying Reggie White and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila for more in franchise history.
Down the stretch, Matthews is heating up. He has 5.5 sacks in the past three games.
It's also been a selfless season for Matthews. During the Packers' bye week, the four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker moved to inside linebacker for the first time in his career. His impact inside has benefited the entire defense, which ranks 12th with 348.6 yards and 13th with 21.9 points allowed per game.
The move to inside linebacker couldn't have been easy for Matthews, whose reputation was built on his pass-rush skills, but his ability to make plays sideline to sideline has transformed the defense. Matthews has 42 tackles this season, his most since being named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.
"I think Clay has probably had his best year, in my opinion," McCarthy said. "I understand that it's four years or so (of) 10-plus sacks, but what he's done going in to play inside linebacker with not a lot of reps prior to that, I think, speaks volumes. It's really a package we didn't get to early in the season, or even much in training camp. I think he's been an excellent teammate."
-- firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood