When the Green Bay Packers kicked off the 2014 season at Seattle, Clay Matthews was an outside linebacker.
When they returned to Seattle for the NFC Championship Game, Matthews was a combination inside-outside linebacker.
And when the Packers hosted the Seahawks on Sunday night, the latest incarnation of Matthews debuted: inside linebacker.
If Matthews took one for the team last year in providing the inside impact that A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones couldn’t, he’s taking another one for the team now. With Sam Barrington on injured reserve, Matthews played every defensive snap at inside linebacker. Even in third-and-long situations, when Matthews normally would be used as a rusher, he stayed at inside linebacker.
“l don’t think we anticipated having our starting inside linebacker go down in Week 1,” Matthews said in the joyous Lambeau Field locker room. “My role on this defense has definitely been adjusted. It’s one of those things that it’s not about me. It’s about the team. You see that with the results that have been put out there. It seems like we’re trending in the right direction. It may not be my natural position but I feel like I can fill that void and make some plays there. That’s where they need me now and it’s my job.”
Maybe Matthews’ job description will change as the season progresses. Perhaps Nate Palmer, especially once his injured hand is fully healthy, will prove capable of handling the every-down duties at inside linebacker. Perhaps rookie fourth-round pick Jake Ryan will show that he’s ready for prime time.
But until then, Matthews is all defensive coordinator Dom Capers has at his disposal. And that means that Matthews, who entered Week 2 tied for fifth in the league with 61 sacks since entering the league in 2009, might have precious few opportunities to do what he does best.
When Matthews’ job responsibilities shifted at the bye last season, he couldn’t hide his reluctance about his new duties. A Pro Bowl pass rusher, he was being asked to learn a new job on the fly. His own uncertainties faded away as his presence in the middle turned the Packers’ defensive into a much stronger unit.
On Sunday night, as he walked toward the exit, that reluctance seemed nonexistent.
“Initially, it’s one of those things, like we talked about last year, the change at the Chicago game, it’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction,” Matthews said. “But the further you take a step back, you realize what this team needs. Unfortunately, there’s not another guy that’s ready right now to fill that void, so that guy’s me. You know, I think my job is always evolving on this defense, whether it’s rushing the passer or playing inside. Like I said back there, I don’t think we anticipated losing our starting inside backer so that requires me to play a little more inside and take on some of those responsibilities that a true middle linebacker would have to perform."
More than ever, Matthews is the key to this defense. Where Dom Capers once made Charles Woodson the prized piece on his football chess board, that role now falls on Matthews. Whether it’s taking on Marshawn Lynch in the running game or chasing Jimmy Graham in the passing game, Matthews will be the driving force for whatever success this defense enjoys.
“They’ve got me on the inside, blitzing, matched up on guys like Marshawn or Jimmy Graham or (Doug) Baldwin,” Matthews said. “They’re really asking a lot but they wouldn’t ask me if they didn’t feel like I could do it and I feel like I’m up to the challenge. It’s obviously a different role than rushing the passer but I still have plenty of opportunities to disrupt the game.”