Just look at the depth chart entering offseason workouts. Because the Packers didn’t upgrade the inside linebacker position in the draft or free agency, they’ve been saddled with the uninspiring quartet of A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington. Compare that to outside linebackers, with Matthews joined by high-priced veteran Julius Peppers, productive Mike Neal and former first-round pick Nick Perry.
The only thing that has changed during the season is the disparity in those depth charts. At inside linebacker, Jones started Week 1 and has played on defense in only two games since. Lattimore started five consecutive games but wasn’t even active on Sunday night. Barrington has been decent in two starts but is learning on the fly a bit after missing all of his rookie season. Meanwhile, at outside linebacker, Peppers has produced a bunch of big plays, Neal has been OK and Perry is having by far the best season of his three-year career.
So, the Packers’ coaching staff made the bold but obvious decision of lining up Matthews at inside linebacker against the Bears.
“I think you’re always looking at your personnel and you’re trying to find a way to get your best 11 football players on the field,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Monday. “Nick Perry had played well, Mike Neal has played very well. We had four ‘elephant’-type guys that we were rotating and it just gave us a chance to get more of those guys on the field, and put a guy like Clay, who is instinctive and smart and can adjust, in a position where it gave us a little more of a physical presence at the inside.”
Matthews was sensational. While he has blitzed from the middle on occasion throughout his career, Matthews received a crash course in inside linebacker play last week. He responded with 10 tackles (nine solo), by the coaches’ count, in merely 53 snaps. That matched his career-high tackle count, posted at San Francisco in Week 1 of last season. His previous season-high tackle count was five.
“I was in great position to make a lot of plays tonight and I think that’s ultimately the reason why we needed to make a few changes around here,” Matthews said after the game. “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. So, I think this is what we wanted out of this change and we’ll see what that means going forward.”
For the Packers, it must mean more of the same.
Matthews is bigger, quicker and faster than any of the team’s inside linebackers. He plays incredibly hard. He plays with incredible instincts.
It’s that speed and quickness that was evident on a number of occasions. When’s the last time you saw Hawk or Jones or Lattimore flying across the field to make a tackle at the sideline, like he did against receiver Alshon Jeffery and running back Matt Forte? On the second series, Forte broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage. Matthews, however, was there in a blur and stopped Forte for no gain. It was a startling play.
“Not that I know of,” Capers said about there being any downside with Matthews inside. “You saw him impact the game last night probably more than he has for a while. I think part of that was the fact that he was dropping, he was rushing, he was rushing from inside, he was rushing from outside. You saw on the one reverse that he almost took the handoff and hit the reverse guy in the backfield. That came from a disguise where he was inside and moved outside late and came off the edge. Those are the types of things that you like to see. I think they create more problems for preparation when they aren’t sure exactly where Clay is going to be.”
Nobody is suggesting inside linebacker is Matthews’ best position. After all, he’s a four-time Pro Bowler at outside linebacker. Coach Mike McCarthy made it abundantly clear on Monday that Matthews is not an inside linebacker. Still, as the saying goes, you take any port in a storm. And Matthews is a heck of a good port in a troubling storm.
Just look at the top defenses around the league and see who’s playing inside linebacker. San Francisco? Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman have anchored that defense for years. Seattle? Young star Bobby Wagner. Baltimore? C.J. Mosley is having an excellent rookie season. Cleveland? Veteran Karlos Dansby. Carolina’s defense stinks this season but Luke Kuechly — the standard at the position — anchored an elite unit last year.
And Green Bay?
No explanation needed.
Finally, with the bye to get things figured out, Capers and the coaches came to the realization that the sheer lack of athleticism at inside linebacker was killing the defense.
“You’ve got time to look at yourself and do all the self-scout, the things that are going well for you and the things that aren’t going well,” Capers said. “And you try to address those things that haven’t been as good as you want them to be. How do you do that? There’s a number of different ways. Is there something scheme-wise you can do? Or is there something personnel-wise you can do? We felt this was something personnel-wise that could help us against the Chicago Bears, No. 1, because we had some issues against them in the first half when we played them down there (in Week 4). I like the way it worked last night. If you’re playing that team and you can hold them to 55 yards rushing and you can come up with three takeaways and four sacks and disrupt their quarterback’s rhythm, that’s what we felt we had to do to win the game.”
With Philadelphia featuring incredible quickness out of the backfield and New England featuring Tom Brady — and a potential playoff run featuring Russell Wilson’s quickness, Reggie Bush’s speed and Jimmy Graham’s and Vernon Davis’ physical dominance at tight end, the Packers need someone featuring those traits in the middle of the defense.
“We just felt that Clay’s a versatile guy,” Capers said. “He did very well. I thought he had an outstanding football game. He was able to impact the game in a lot of different areas. He’s still in our third downs rushing from outside. We were able to rush him from both inside and outside, and he flowed to the ball and had a lot of production. It worked the way we wanted it to work last night. Clay gives us a bigger guy inside. Obviously, he’s an outstanding player, and I think he’s an outstanding player whether he’s playing inside or outside.”firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.