Clay Matthews spent an entire offseason learning the nuances of playing inside linebacker, and his preparation showed in crunch time Sunday.
With the Green Bay Packers’ defense backed up, Matthews read Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s eyes. Matthews slid from the defense's right to left, evading an area that would be filled by Bears receiver Marquess Wilson. Cutler, never checking off his first read, threw a pass to tight end Martellus Bennett instead of his open receiver.
When Matthews stepped in front of Cutler’s pass and returned the interception more than 40 yards, it sealed the Packers’ first win of the season.
“Cutler didn’t see him,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Monday. "And he timed it just right, which Clay has those kind of instincts. He’s a very good dropper. So he read Cutler’s eyes, and Cutler didn’t see it, and he broke in front of Bennett at the right time.”
Matthews’ interception was a blend of instincts, play recognition and athleticism, important traits for an inside linebacker. It showed the benefit of having Matthews play in the middle of the field instead of rushing exclusively off the edge, a move he made midway through last season.
He's still listed as an outside linebacker on the Packers’ depth chart, but it’s clear Matthews' role is primarily as a starting inside linebacker. He played all 77 defensive snaps Sunday, with 51 (66 percent) coming at inside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus. He had 24 snaps (31 percent) at outside linebacker, and two snaps covering in the slot.
Matthews did well in coverage, limiting Cutler to 2-of-3 passing for 14 yards and the interception.
“He’s one of our best droppers,” Capers said.
Matthews has made it clear his preference is playing outside linebacker, where he can focus on rushing the passer. He remains one of the NFL’s top sack artists, and he had one quarterback hit Sunday. Bears tackle Jermon Bushrod held Matthews to prevent him from sacking Cutler in the second quarter. The penalty was offset with cornerback Sam Shields’ holding foul on the same play.
While Matthews' pass-rush ability made him a star in his first 5 1/2 seasons, it’s looking more and more like his biggest strength may be versatility. Since moving to inside linebacker last season, Matthews has proven he’s capable of being one of the league’s best all-around linebackers. His success makes it difficult for the Packers to give Matthews a larger role as an outside linebacker, even if they wanted to.
“We feel he can do both,” Capers said, “and it’ll change from week to week by game plan. I think that’s one of the things Clay gives you. You saw him lined up at some of the outside linebacker positions (Sunday), so he’s doing a lot of the same stuff he’s always done out there, but you saw him a lot off the ball and being able to go to either side of the offense.
“So we like what Clay gives us that way, because he can do both. From week to week, that’ll change how much he’s doing one or the other.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood