The all-around greatness of Clay Matthews was on full display during the second half of last season.
Learning a foreign position on the fly following a midseason bye, Matthews finished the season with 11 sacks among 61 tackles, according to league stats. Among the top 25 players in sacks, only five had more tackles than Matthews. And if that’s not impressive enough, there's this: Of the 114 players who had at least three sacks, only Houston’s J.J. Watt trumped Matthews’ production in both tackles and passes defensed.
“It's not an easy transition,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I don't think there's many guys that could do it, especially when we made a decision there during the bye week. He had a couple extra practices but that was about it.”
Matthews used the word “patchwork” to describe the process last season. This offseason, as he lines up mostly at inside linebacker, it’s about learning the “nuances” that there weren’t time to learn in the heat of the moment.
“For the most part, it's understanding why I'm doing it, where I'm lining up, who I'm covering and making sure there's no letdown,” Matthews said. “That way when I do get out there, it's not some guy covering for me.”
Linebackers coach Winston Moss downplayed Matthews’ concerns about knowing the “big picture” of the defense. As one of the smartest players on the team, Moss figured Matthews had that already.
“I think that Clay is a smart person and a smart football player and he was that way at outside linebacker,” Moss said. “I’m sure he had a sense of what was going on around him before we started moving him around. I think as he continues to go through his career, wherever he’s at, he’ll play well. He’ll be fine.”
Matthews’ production shot through the roof upon the midseason move. After eight games, Matthews was credited with 2.5 sacks, five tackles for losses and 19 total tackles. During the final eight games, Matthews piled up 8.5 sacks, 11 tackles for losses and 42 total tackles. With Matthews in a part-time role at inside linebacker, Green Bay ranked sixth in rushing yards allowed per game and seventh in rushing yards allowed per carry over the final eight games.
“It's just time on the job, repetitions,” Capers said. “You haven't seen a lot of people move from outside to inside and have the kind of impact that he had, the kind of production. He was very productive rushing the passer. He certainly helped our run defense. We went from not being a very good run defense to the second half of the season I think if you put (up) our numbers we'd probably be close to being a top-five defense.”
By lining up here, there and everywhere on the defense, it was a win for Green Bay’s defense as a whole and Matthews personally. Because he was so good inside, the Packers had the luxury of waiting until the fourth round to draft an inside linebacker (Jake Ryan). Capers can tap into Matthews’ versatility to create mismatches and to challenge offenses to simply find out where he’s going to be when the ball’s snapped.
“We've always felt that when Clay would move inside in some of our sub packages that he did a great job in there,” Capers said. “He's always been really a good dropper as well as a rusher. And he's been a good rusher from inside. Over the years he's been here, he's been at different spots — the old 'Psycho' package and when we went to our 3-2 package in our sub, he was inside most of the time and was very good at running stunts and that type of thing up inside. He's just a good all-around football player. This is giving Clay a chance to settle in to where he can go either way. I think he'll be far more efficient than what he was the second half of the season because he had to make the transition so quickly.”
At the time, Matthews was admittedly reluctant to make the move. After all, he was a four-time Pro Bowler on the outside. He’s much more onboard now after the success he and the team enjoyed during the second half of last season.
“I think it just shows the versatility that I possess and can bring to this defense and help this defense by doing that,” Matthews said. “We'll see what that means moving forward. But I think I can do it, I think I can excel at it and I will.”
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