Playing “Where’s Clay?” was much easier than the childhood game of “Where’s Waldo?”
On Thursday, the second day of organized team activities but the first open to the media and fans, the Green Bay Packers’ Pro Bowl linebacker, Clay Matthews, practiced with the inside linebackers during position drills and lined up at inside linebacker during live periods.
It’s only one day, of course, and perhaps Matthews lined up with the outside linebackers on Wednesday or will on Friday. Nonetheless, Thursday’s practice – and Matthews’ words after that practice - hinted that his role on the Packers' defense in 2015 might be quite similar to what it was during the second half of 2014.
That’s no surprise given the way Green Bay’s defense played during the second half of the season. With Matthews moved into a part-time role at inside linebacker for the final eight games, the run defense became one of the best in the league and Matthews still managed to pile up 8.5 sacks after notching just 2.5 in the first eight games.
“We were playing our best defense and might have had our best defensive game, aside from the last couple minutes, against Seattle (in the NFC Championship Game),” Matthews said. “I think it’s important for me to be able to switch around and play both positions, whether that be switching inside and going back outside and rushing the passer, and I need to make sure I know the nuances. Last year was kind of a patchwork as far coming in there. Now that I’m actually learning why I’m doing certain things, it’s making the transition a lot easier. As I told you guys last year, we’ll see what that means moving forward, but I’m sure it’ll be very similar in that I’ll be playing both inside and outside.”
It’s also not a surprise given the way the Packers handled the offseason. After jettisoning A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore, they didn’t address inside linebacker with a premium pick in the draft. The only additions have been Michigan’s Jake Ryan in the fourth round, Tavarus Dantzler as an undrafted free agent and Josh Francis as a street free agent. Carl Bradford and Nate Palmer, who were outside linebackers for most of training camp last summer, were stationed at inside linebacker on Thursday, as well.
If there was any surprise, it's this: Matthews spent the day lined up with Sam Barrington on the No. 1 defense, even though the team was paper thin at outside linebacker with Julius Peppers sick, Mike Neal and Nick Perry sidetracked by injury, Andy Mulumba returning slowly from a torn ACL and rookie James Vaughters wrapping up his classes at Stanford. That left only three outside linebackers — second-year player Jayrone Elliott, first-year player Adrian Hubbard and rookie Jermauria Rasco taking all the reps.
"Obviously, this spring we're putting a little more emphasis on me understanding the inside position, as you saw from the position drills and everything," Matthews said. "I know the outside. I still will continue to work with them. As you'll see, we'll be alternating inside and outside as far as rushing to stacking the box. But mentally I'm ready. Like I said, they're going to rush me from all over the field, they're going to drop me from all over the field and I expect to do a multitude of things this year."
Matthews is so versatile that coach Mike McCarthy joked that Matthews might even line up at nose tackle.
“Clay Matthews, he’s a great pass rusher and he’s going to continue to play as many different positions as we could possibly get out of him,” McCarthy said. “We need to utilize Clay as much as we can. He’s a great player and we need to give him as many opportunities as we can to make plays.”
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said the idea is to get the 11 best players on the field. Given the youth of the inside linebacker corps and the proven production of the outside linebackers, it's easy to see why Matthews spent so much time inside on Thursday.
"Clay's going to be I think playing a lot of different spots," Capers said. "We liked the way he finished up the season. We thought he made a big impact on our defense. We were still able to involve him rushing the passer. So, that's going to be a fluid state. He has the ability to play inside and outside and wherever our greatest need is at that point in time is probably where Clay will be."
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