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Matthews on Move Made Packers’ Pass Rush More Dynamic

The pass rush was about the only key element – pass offense, run offense, pass protection, run defense and pass defense included – that the Packers could count on consistently in 2015. Surprisingly, it happened with their assumed best pass rusher playing primarily at inside linebacker.

It sounds like the Green Bay Packers have different plans again for Clay Matthews in 2016. That was the indication at least from coach Mike McCarthy last month at an honest and up-front press conference to wrap up the 2015 season.

“My goal for Clay is for him to play outside linebacker,” began McCarthy. “That’s always been the case. I never really made any bones about it. I think it shows the type of player Clay is just as far as the type of teammate he is to go inside and to play as much as he did, really full-time there.”

For his first five seasons in the NFL, Matthews made a name for himself as a pass rusher at outside linebacker in the Packers’ base 3-4 scheme. Then, midway through the 2014 season, the Packers moved Matthews inside, searching for answers to help a defense that desperately needed it.

A lack of personnel – by depth and performance – was the main reason the Packers moved Matthews and that could play a role again in 2016. Though rookie Jake Ryan surfaced at the end of the season and Sam Barrington will be coming off injured reserve, the Packers still have a perceived need at inside linebacker. And though they are deep and strong at outside linebacker, those prospects could change over the next couple of months with key contributors Mike Neal and Nick Perry scheduled to become free agents. Julius Peppers, at 36, is not necessarily a shoe-in to return, either.

“We’ll see what the offseason brings and how our personnel shakes out,” said McCarthy.

Before the offseason plays out, however, the Packers will want to consider how their defense played in 2015 with Matthews taking more snaps in the middle. Strangely enough, their pass rush was maybe the best it has ever been under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, even with familiar personnel.

Outside of a dreary three-game stretch in the middle of the season, the Packers had multiple sacks in 14 of the other 15 games (postseason included). In 10 games, they had three or more sacks. Only the Denver Broncos were better.

While the Packers’ total of 43 sacks over the regular season (tied for seventh in the league) was just two sacks more than their average under Capers, the defense helped control games with its front seven. In the past, it had given up too much when the offense flourished and set up big leads. But this season, when the offense consistently struggled, the defense kept the games close.

The pass rush was a big factor in closing out games against Kansas City, at San Francisco, against St. Louis, at Minnesota and at Washington in the postseason. The only big letdowns were a three-game stretch against San Diego and at Denver and Carolina.

Capers again used complex rush schemes with a variety of positions getting into the mix. Eight different players tallied at least three sacks, and although Matthews’ 6.5 in the regular season was the second-lowest total of his career, the overall team pressure was more consistent. In fact, Capers might have even discovered some new options.

The Packers used Matthews within the scheme, as they did Charles Woodson for years, as the ultimate chess piece. Matthews was a force on twists and stunts and showing pressure in the A gaps where the Packers had little firepower before or players not athletic enough to make the plays.

“I thought Clay did an outstanding job for us this year moving in there and really playing full-time in there,” assessed Capers two days after the Packers’ divisional playoff loss at Arizona. “You’ve seen us in pass situations where he moves up. He was rushing inside a lot in this game. I like the combination of Julius and Clay being able to match up inside because I think you’ve got two athletic guys that are going against lesser pass protectors inside and we’ve gotten some real good pressure out of those situations. So I think Clay’s a guy that we move forward hopefully we can move him around and take advantage of his ability to make plays.”

Sending additional pass rushers up the middle in some form has become a league-wide trend. McCarthy, to his credit, has been acute in making Matthews more of a “targeting” problem for opponents, not just a one-trick pony coming off the edge where a single opposing tackle can match up. Perhaps that is why McCarthy sounded contradictory later in the same line of commentary about moving Matthews back outside.

“The matchup part of it was really always my goal,” he continued. “There are things specifically that he does from that position that we’ll continue to do. He’s a great weapon. He’s so disruptive. He gives you obviously opportunity to match him up vs. offensive personnel from that location obviously a lot better than playing the outside position. But he’s an outside linebacker. We need to get back to him playing there and just going inside when needed just to change the targeting, a challenge for the offense and things like that. That’s the goal.”

Despite playing more on the inside, Matthews, by coaches’ tally, still led the team in quarterback pressures (27) and hits (14). He also posted a career-high 84 tackles and had a key interception in the regular season opener at Chicago when he read Jay Cutler’s eyes and cut across the formation on a pass intended for tight end Martellus Bennett.

Matthews showed his playmaking ways against the run with 13 tackles for losses – tied for the most among primary inside linebackers – even though the Packers finished 21st in the league against the run. He had 16 tackles for losses in 2014 and nine when a thumb injury limited him to 11 games in 2013, the last time he played almost exclusively outside.

Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at

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