The only problem was that it took eight games –and the bye week – to have it all work out.
As surprising as the final score was Sunday night – 55-14 over the rival Chicago Bears - was where Matthews lined up within the Packers’ defense.
Normally the starter at left outside linebacker, Matthews opened the game in the Packers’ nickel package as an inside linebacker next to A.J. Hawk and spent most of the game there before being pulled late in the third quarter with the Packers up 48-7.
“I felt, you know, obviously you’ve got like a five-day crash course on middle linebacker over this past week so going out there were some reservations about how I was going to play,” said Matthews. “But I think when it really comes down to it, in hindsight, it’s just about being an athlete, will and want to and getting to the ball. Obviously, you have to know where you fit and, for the most part, I thought I did a good job of that tonight.”
Though Matthews had blitzed from the middle of the field before and played some off the line of scrimmage in the opener at Seattle, he had never played in the middle to this extent in any game of his career. But the Packers clearly had a different plan for this, the 190th all-time meeting with the Bears.
An early sign might have been the inactive player list. Jamari Lattimore, who had started five games at inside linebacker and was active for the other three, was a surprise scratch since he had not been listed on the Packers’ injury report during the week. The only other two inside linebackers active, aside from Hawk, were Sam Barrington, who started the last two games, and Brad Jones, who started the opener.
More than anything, however, moving Matthews appears to have been driven by the Packers’ bye week evaluations.
“You have a chance to kind of reboot, to reset yourself for the second half of the season,” said coach Mike McCarthy. “Playing Clay at different areas, a different position, to create targeting problems for the offense was something that we spent the whole offseason highlighting and this was kind of the next step. Great job by our defensive staff with the creativity, and Clay stepped in there and played at an extremely high level. I thought he was outstanding tonight.”
Matthews finished with a team-leading 11 tackles (nine solo; two for losses), a sack and a quarterback hit without playing in the fourth quarter. Coming into the game, he had just 27 tackles and 2.5 sacks for the entire season.
The plan to play Matthews inside some had been in the playbook since training camp according to Hawk, yet it took eight games to manifest. For Matthews, there was more of a specific reason it was this game.
“Because they ran for 300 on us last time,” Matthews began, referring to the Bears’ 235 yards rushing against the Packers in Week 4, “and especially coming off the Saints game (and) giving up a little too much (193 rushing yards) and especially after the bye week, when you have your self-evaluation, I think we realized where we need to improve and what we’re good at. Obviously, we’re good at getting after the quarterback but, that being said, you can’t do that unless you stop the run. So, we did a good job at it tonight. Obviously, the offense helped by putting points on them early and allowing us to get them uncomfortable and create those turnovers.”
As Jay Cutler always does against the Packers, he gave them turnover opportunities. But to go along with two interceptions, the Packers held running back Matt Forte to just 54 yards on 17 carries, a 3.2 average. Coming into the game, the Packers had the league’s worst run defense allowing 153.5 yards per game.
Though Nick Perry took the majority of snaps at Matthews’ normal left outside linebacker spot, the Packers used Matthews off the edge in certain pass rush situations (Perry moved inside along the defensive line on those plays). By Packer Report’s count, 10 times Matthews rushed from the right side. He also blitzed on at least six pass attempts and twice came off the left side.
On both occasions coming from the left, where he lurked behind the 6-foot-7 frame of Julius Peppers just before the snap, Matthews made impact plays. In the second quarter, he squashed 5-foot-8, 175-pound receiver Chris Williams on an end-around for an 8-yard loss. And in the third quarter, he took down Cutler for what would have been his second sack of the game had he not accidently hit Cutler in the head. Matthews drew an unnecessary roughness penalty on the play, which had little effect since the Packers were up 45-0 at that point.
“I’ve always taken pride in whatever they’ve asked me to do so you put me in position where there’s some free space and some opportunities to make some plays, I took advantage of it,” said Matthews of moving around. “So, I think this is what we wanted out of this change and we’ll see what that means going forward.
“Obviously, it’s a little premature to say there’s a switch to middle linebacker or whatever you want to call it, but I think as we’ve shown throughout the years, throughout this season as well, we try to find a little more versatility for myself and especially with the addition of Peppers, and Nick Perry getting healthy, and Mike Neal. If you want to play well, you want to get your playmakers on the field as much as possible and I think as one of those guys, I think I was probably the best fit to kind of line up in the middle and have at it.”