From Slow Start to Super Finish?

That's a reason why the Packers are sticking with Clay Matthews at inside linebacker rather than going through the growing pains of a young, untested starter.

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One more win.

One more win last season would have put the Green Bay Packers in position to host the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC Championship Game. Maybe, just maybe, one more win in September would have meant one more win in January and one more win — the ultimate win — in February.

And that, maybe more than anything, is why Clay Matthews spent a hot day in May working at inside linebacker and probably will spend plenty of hot days in August doing the same.

Maybe Jake Ryan or Carl Bradford will turn into excellent players. But, chances are, they won’t be excellent players when the season kicks off in September.

Championships, of course, aren’t won in September. But maybe, in the Packers’ case last season, one was lost last September. The Packers are a perennial powerhouse but also perennial slow starters. They went 1-2 to start 2014, 1-2 to start 2013 and 2-3 to start 2012.

The Packers could throw Ryan into the defensive fire from the get-go, like they did with HaHa Clinton-Dix last year, and let him — and the defense — grow together. Or they could go with Matthews, a proven commodity, in hopes of getting that one more win.

“Especially when you look at the way we’ve started the years out here at 1-2, 2-2, I think it’s important that we start strong,” Matthews said on Thursday. “Despite the loss in those last couple minutes (in the NFC Championship Game at Seattle), we finished strong. We were playing our best defense and might have had our best defensive game, aside from the last couple minutes, against Seattle. 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.”

Unlike when the change was made after the bye last year, Matthews sounded at ease about his role on the defense. His trepidation about the move was understandable. He was a four-time Pro Bowler at outside linebacker, after all. Now, he’s a five-time Pro Bowler who is coming off possibly his best season in the NFL. After posting just 2.5 sacks during eight games solely at outside linebacker, Matthews piled up 8.5 sacks while playing here, there and everywhere over the final eight games. Whether he was rushing the quarterback or stuffing the ball-carrier, his play spearheaded the defense’s revival.

“I think the success speaks for itself,” Matthews said. “Obviously, if I didn't have as much success, it would probably be a different story. But the fact that I'm still able to get after the quarterback, create pressure, turnovers, TFLs, whatever it may be, obviously helps with that transition. It helps the defense, as well. Getting away from being selfish, it helps the defense even moreso.”

Maybe Matthews is staying inside because the Packers didn’t use a premium pick on an inside linebacker. Or maybe the Packers didn’t use a premium pick on an inside linebacker because of Matthews — remember, they took cornerback Damarious Randall at No. 30 of the first round rather than linebacker Stephone Anthony, who went at No. 31 to New Orleans. Whatever the reasoning, only general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy know. Regardless, the state of the roster dictates that Matthews remains at least a part-time inside linebacker.

“I think after the coaches were able to sit back and watch — especially that second half of the season, in which I moved around quite a bit and played inside — I think they saw how well our defense rebounded from the first half of the season and how well we improved,” Matthews said. “Like I said earlier, we need to start the season off strong. We can’t put ourselves in a hole. In doing so, that requires me to play a few positions on the defense.”

The numbers speak volumes. During the first eight games, the Packers went 5-3 while allowing 23.9 points per game. During the final eight games, the Packers went 7-1 while allowing 19.6 points per game. Maybe, with Matthews bolstering the middle of the defense, the Packers can get that one more win needed to get over the hump and return to the Super Bowl.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I mean, you look at us, we’ve been a young team to start the season and had a lot of transition in certain areas. You look at our defense last year, it took us until midseason to kind of find our niche. We moved some people around, some spots around, (and) I liked the direction we were heading and I really felt we played our best football down the stretch. If you look at us statistically compared to the first half of the season, it was like night and day.

“The things that happen is you’ve got to make a decision in terms of when it’s time to put guys out there because, in this league, it’s so close and these games come down to two, three, four plays of who makes the play and who doesn’t make the play. So that’s why these offseasons are so important. We’re going to be a young defense. You figure from the cornerback position and the linebacker position, we lost, what, 31 years of experience off our defense. Now we feel like we’ve got some young, talented guys, but the key is how fast can we get those young, talented guys ready to go out and perform well enough to beat good football teams, which we play early in the season. And if you look at us over the last few years, that first quarter of the season has been 50-50, and then all of a sudden we reach a point in there where we find our niche and then we go like that (and go on a winning streak). The goal is let’s try to come out of the blocks efficient enough that you can play the good teams and win against the good teams.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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