Matthews is here.
Matthews is there.
Matthews is everywhere.
He’s on the line of scrimmage at outside linebacker in a 3-4.
He’s off the line of scrimmage at outside linebacker in a 4-3.
He’s essentially playing slot cornerback.
Wherever he lines up, he’s a dangerous weapon the Green Bay Packers are using in all sorts of ways as the centerpiece of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ hybrid defense.
“What we’re trying to accomplish is the fact that we’re trying to present problems for the opponents’ offense and not just lining me up in one spot,” Matthews told a handful of reporters on Wednesday, speaking for the first time about the defensive changes since he was asked vaguely about them during OTAs due to their top-secret nature.
At the time, Matthews didn’t think he’d have to “sacrifice statistics” in his new role. Time will tell if that’s the case, but Matthews sounded a team-first attitude on Wednesday. If Mike Neal and Julius Peppers can apply the pressure as traditional edge rushers, then Matthews can impact games in other fashions.
“I think the thing about it is you look at the personnel on the field. I think that I’m more than capable of rushing the passer and dropping into coverage,” he said. “Whether it’s out of a 3-4, 4-3 look or whatever it may be, I believe I can do it and I believe I can do it to a high level. I think when I still had my opportunities to rush, I got some hurries on the quarterback, some hits on the quarterback and was able to get that sack, but also at the same time was able to get some production in regards to tackles and all that. I think I can do it all. I think over the years, I’ve been known as a sack guy, but I think what’s been lost in the shuffle is the fact that I can cover, I can play in space and rush the passer, as well.”
There were several goals in Capers’ mind when making such a drastic schematic change. From a full-unit perspective, Capers wanted to utilize his best players. That includes Matthews, Peppers, Neal and Nick Perry at outside linebacker. By going to a 4-3 look, Capers could at least get three of those players on the field on a more-than-occasional basis.
From Matthews’ perspective, he remains the team’s marquee defender. By moving him around, offenses have something extra to think about.
There wasn’t much to think about in past seasons. According to ESPN Sports & Information statistics provided courtesy of ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky, Matthews lined up right outside linebacker on 88.6 percent of defensive snaps in 2013. In 2012, he lined up at left outside linebacker on 90.5 percent of the snaps.
Perhaps coincidentally, the Packers fielded their best defense and won the Super Bowl in 2010. Of his first five seasons, Matthews was on the move more than ever during that season. Even then, he lined up at left outside linebacker on 78.2 percent of defensive snaps.
This season, his most snaps have come at right outside linebacker (58). Even that is less than half — 45.7 percent, to be exact.
To put it another way, over his first five seasons, he never played more than 50 snaps at his secondary position. Already this season, he’s played 52 snaps at left outside linebacker.
He’s lined up as a slot cornerback eight times, as well. That puts him on pace for 64 snaps. His previous high was 10 in 2012.
All of the moving should save Matthews some wear and tear, too — a fact that shouldn’t be overlooked consdering his full-throttle style.
“When you look at the big picture, if he’s lined up on the end and he’s got a 330-pound tackle blocking him all day, I just think over the long run this is going to be better for him,” Capers said. “There’s nothing tougher than rushing, and when you’re 250 and you’re going against a 330-pound guy, it’s tough. So now, being able to move him around, he might be going against that 330-pound guy one time, then against a 220-pound running back, then a 250-pound tight end.”
Matthews had one sack last week, when he chased down Michael Vick. He had a pressure on the Jets’ second touchdown, when he lined up off the ball as a 4-3 outside linebacker but got home just a split-second too late to prevent Geno Smith’s perfectly placed touchdown to Eric Decker.
“Ultimately, it’s about mismatches, and I think over the years I’ve proven that I can rush against not only against tackles but guards, tight ends, running backs, whatever it is,” Matthews said. “We’re trying to present mismatches because if you do line someone up in the same spot for the same time, they’re just going to figure out a way to slow you down. Ultimately, we need to find ways for our playmakers to make plays, and this seems to be working and it seems to be one of them.”
It’s not just lining up in different places. It’s being used in different ways. In the type of calculated gamble that could make the defense sink or swim — or determine Capers’ future in Green Bay — the venerable defensive coordinator has turned Matthews into something of a decoy. To be sure, it seems counterintuitive to use your best pass rusher less frequently as a pass rusher.
Against the Jets, Matthews was on the field for 34 passing plays. He rushed the passer 22 times and dropped into coverage 12 times. Meanwhile, Peppers rushed on 22-of-23 passing plays, Neal rushed on 32-of-34 passing plays and Perry rushed on all seven passing plays.
“He might be lined up strong, he might be lined up weak, he might be lined up on the tight end, he might be up on the open side, he might be lined up in the middle,” Capers said. “You saw him do all those things (against the Jets). I think his versatility, the ability to rush or drop, helps when you look at the big picture. In any package, if you’re just lining a guy up and he’s rushing every down, it becomes easier for them to scheme for him. (Now) if he’s dropping out of there, that’s giving them more things to think about. I think he’s equally as good in terms of rushing and dropping out of there. I think it just gives us more versatility in terms of what we can do with him. We can move him around more to where he isn’t just aligned on one side, going against a tackle all the time. I think his ability to get him where backs have to block him because we just like that matchup if they do.”
Rodgers played the cat-and-mouse game against Matthews all summer at training camp. Does the quarterback and the line tilt the pass protection toward Matthews, only to see him drop into coverage?
“I think any time Clay’s out there, you’ve got to account for him,” Rodgers said. “You have to figure out where he’s at. If he’s outside the box, you have to make sure you’ve got a guy assigned to him in your pass protection. Clay’s one of the premier rush guys in the league. When he’s in space, he’s one of those guys like a Polamalu or Ed Reed when he was playing with Baltimore. You want to make sure where he’s at every play.”
Matthews will challenge the Lions on Sunday at Ford Field. He should be an X-factor in that game, with Detroit boasting firepower at all of the skill positions, including tight end (Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria, Eric Ebron) and running back (Reggie Bush, Joique Bell). His impact might come more in coverage or vs. the run, considering the Lions finished second in the league in sack percentage last season, with just 3.63 percent of their dropbacks ending in sacks.
“With great players, no matter where they align, they have to be dealt with,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said in his conference call on Wednesday. “I don’t care if they’re on the ball, off the ball or wherever it might be. That guy’s a great player and does a tremendous job. You better do your job in dealing with him, otherwise he’s going to create and wreak havoc upon your offense.”
At one point on Wednesday, Matthews mentioned Charles Woodson. It’s a fitting comparison between the marquee defenders of today and yesterday. Woodson was brought to Green Bay to intercept passes, and he delivered two seasons in which he led the NFL in picks. Matthews was drafted by Green Bay to rush the passer, and he’s delivered 50 sacks in five seasons. Woodson, however, impacted the game in numerous ways, from forcing fumbles to sacking the quarterback. Now, it’s Matthews’ turn to be Capers’ prized piece on the football chess board.
It’s a mission Matthews is embracing.
“I’m a competitor,” he said. “I love the opportunity to go out there and have that opportunity to play one-on-one with certain individuals, rush the passer as well as have opportunities to showcase my talents wherever they may be. I always look forward to it. I look forward to making plays, so wherever that may be, whether that’s breaking up a pass or getting a sack, I expect myself to be successful and be good at whatever it is they ask me to do. ...
“I’m excited that I have the opportunity to go out there, rush the passer, do everything that I can do. At the end of the day, I love making plays, I love getting after the quarterback. Dom and the rest of the staff will find ways for me to make plays and I think we’ll continue to see that moving forward whether it’s in coverage, rushing the passer, whatever it may be.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.