LeRoy Butler and Tom Silverstein talk about how Clay Matthews was used against Dallas. Bill Schulz | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY - There is no way to define the Green Bay Packers' defense five games into the season.
Ranked 11th in yards allowed, 20th in points allowed and tied for 18th in third-down efficiency, coordinator Dom Capers’ unit deserves some of the credit for coach Mike McCarthy’s best start to a season since going 6-0 in 2015.
While the defense pulled its weight in victories over Seattle, Cincinnati and Chicago, it got shredded in Atlanta and couldn’t get off the field when the game was on the line in Dallas. It has dominated in some occasions and been dominated on others.
Perhaps the best way to describe the defense is that it is a vessel bobbing up and down on the current of individual performance.
It dominated against the Seahawks when Mike Daniels and Nick Perry were healthy. It fell apart when Daniels and Perry were hurt and Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins were holding down two of the top three cornerback positions the following week against the Falcons.
It was revived when rookie defensive backs Kevin King and Josh Jones injected some athleticism against Cincinnati and defensive tackle Quinton Dial and cornerback Josh Hawkins made key contributions against Chicago.
And it both waxed with the coming of age of linebacker Blake Martinez and waned with the unbecoming performance of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix against the Cowboys.
The Packers have just not found a way to function as a unit and so they are prone to the ups and downs that come when only a couple of players are both consistently playing at a high level and consistently on the field.
“Hey, we're happy to be where we are, 4-1,” McCarthy remarked a day after the Packers escaped with a 35-31 victory over the Cowboys. “We need to play better. We had a lot of moving parts on defense, just challenged there with the number of substitutions, particularly in the secondary.
“But we weren't as clean as we needed to be, and that showed up in our performance.”
Heading into the Packers’ first meeting of the season Sunday with the Minnesota Vikings — their fifth NFC game — the only two players who have been at the top of their games down in and down out through the first five weeks are linebacker Clay Matthews and nose tackle Kenny Clark.
Neither of them has splashy statistics, but they have been central to the defense staying afloat amid injuries and performance failures. There’s no telling where the Packers would be without them.
In the case of Matthews, it’s a long season and the odds of him staying healthy the entire year are not on his side given his injury history.
But Capers showed against the Cowboys that Matthews still can impact games when he’s not crashing full tilt into opposing offensive linemen 50 snaps a game. When he was younger, Matthews’ value was making splash plays, but now 31 years old with a lot of wear on his tread, he needs to be used smartly.
Playing mostly at left outside linebacker this season, Matthews is tied with Perry for the team lead in sacks (2½), tied with Perry and Kyler Fackrell for the team lead in quarterback hits (three) and is tied with Clark for second on the team in quarterback pressures (four).
What he showed against the Cowboys, however, is that he still has value in coverage and can have an impact on the game with plays other than sacks.
After watching Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott beat his defense with several scramble throws and begin to rely on veteran tight end Jason Witten, Capers switched to a 4-3 “over” look with Matthews off the line of scrimmage and at inside linebacker depth.
He used three defensive linemen and an outside linebacker — either Perry or Ahmad Brooks — to create a front four and then played zone coverage behind them. Matthews made several key plays from his new position, including breaking up a potential first-down pass by closing on Witten and separating him from the ball soon after he caught it.
There’s little doubt that Prescott saw Matthews closing in on receiver Terrance Williams when he threw a hot ball that bounced off Williams’ hands and into the arms of Randall, who returned the interception for a touchdown that gave the Packers a 28-24 lead in the fourth quarter.
“I thought Clay did a really, really good job in terms of his ability to have vision and break on the ball,” Capers said. “You even saw on ‘D’s’ interception where Clay made a nice break on that one.
“We hadn’t done much of that but we did quite a bit of it yesterday. I thought Clay really responded well.”
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Now that Martinez seems to have found a spot in the defense and can be a reliable run stopper, it’s not as critical that Matthews play inside linebacker. But pass coverage has always been a problem for the Packers’ inside linebackers and Matthews runs better than anyone else Capers has.
So, if it takes pressure off Martinez to have Matthews around him, it’s worth doing. If it allows Daniels or Perry or Brooks to rush from different spots, then it’s worth doing.
There still will be opportunities for Matthews to rush the passer from an outside linebacker position, but the more he lines up as an inside linebacker or inside pass rusher, the less predictable he becomes.
Perry may be the team’s premier pass rusher now, but it doesn’t mean Matthews can’t have as big of an impact.
If Capers can somehow wave a magic wand and get some of the injured — including King (concussion) and safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring), who were both hurt against the Cowboys — back on the field soon, he can take pressure off Matthews and let him affect the game in less traditional ways.
Every week, Capers should be asking himself what can he do to use Matthews to attack the opposing offense’s strength. Sometimes it might mean playing him in less traditional ways and may result in his sack total remaining modest.
Matthews only played in the 4-3 on 11 snaps Sunday.
At some point, the Packers must start being more than just the sum of a sack here or interception there. Injuries will have a lot to say about that, but they can use Matthews in a way where stats won’t matter, only that he plays a position that helps everyone around him play better.