That means the versatility of Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers must come to the forefront.
“Peppers and Matthews are hard guys to contain,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a conference call on Wednesday.
Since the Packers moved Matthews into a part-time role at inside linebacker to sure up the team’s biggest weakness, the team is 3-0. Green Bay has allowed an average of 18.3 points and 349.3 yards in those games compared to averages of 22.4 and 371.1, respectively, for the season. Two of Green Bay’s three-lowest single-game yardage totals have come in those games, with Matthews registering 19 tackles, two sacks and two passes defensed.
“He’s a versatile guy, there’s no question about it,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week. “We need to know where he’s at on each snap. He’s not just in one place, that’s for certain. I think, to me, no matter where he’s at – if he’s inside off the line, if he’s on the line of scrimmage playing a linebacker position or if he’s in their sub packages playing an end or in a pass rush position – he’s a very good football player. Certainly, we’re going to have a lot of guys that are going to need to be ready to handle him in protection because it’s not just one person’s responsibility based on the fact that he lines up (at) so many different spots. It’ll be a big challenge for us. Obviously, he’s been a good player for a long time, and I’m sure it’ll be a big challenge for us on Sunday.”
Outside of Aaron Rodgers, Belichick saved his highest praise of the week for Peppers. In his first season as an outside linebacker, he has five sacks and he remains tied for the NFL lead with seven turnover plays (three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, two interceptions). He went without a sack or turnover last week against Minnesota, stopping a six-game streak in which he had at least one sack or turnover.
“Julius is an exceptional athlete,” Belichick said. “He’s got rare, rare skills: size, athleticism, speed, ability. He’s a really long, long player. His length as well as his athleticism are huge strengths of his, in addition to a lot of experience. He’s seen everything, experienced it and I don’t think there are too many things on the football field that would surprise him anymore. He does all those things. He can run and get around the edge, he’s got power, he’s got inside moves. They move all their players around a lot, so you get him in some different spots. He’s a very, very disruptive guy.”
At age 34, Peppers might not be an elite athlete anymore, and he certainly didn’t come to Green Bay with a wealth of expertise in coverage. However, he’s tied for second on the team with two interceptions and tied for fifth with six passes defensed. In fact, Matthews and Peppers lead all NFL outside linebackers in passes defensed.
“When he is in coverage, you have to be aware of his length and the size that he presents,” Belichick said. “He’s certainly a lot bigger than almost anybody else that you would see in coverage that a quarterback has to deal with. A lot of guys that a quarterback is throwing against are maybe in the 6-foot range. Occasionally you get a real big linebacker that you have to deal with, a 6-4, 6-5 guy, but when those guys come along, as a quarterback you’ve got to really pay attention to that and just recognize how much more space a player like that can take up than somebody who is 4 or 5 inches shorter with a lot shorter arms. Peppers presents a problem on all those things.”
Matthews, in particular, figures to have a featured role. Whether it’s pressuring Tom Brady or trying to rein in tight end Rob Gronkowski or running back Shane Vereen in coverage, Matthews will have to be at his best.
It’s a challenge he embraces.
“For me, it’s the competition that I deal with directly, whether it’s matching up with the tight end or the running back or the tackle or whatever it might be,” Matthews said. “Obviously, as a competitor and playing against a great one in Tom, you want to get the win at the end of the day. As a pass rusher, as well, you want to make your plays, get your sacks and get your hits on him. The win would be the most important.”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.