Just one game-changing play.
In the week leading up to the Green Bay Packers NFC North clash with the Minnesota Vikings that was the reasoning at least two Packers defensive coaches gave. Their star linebacker, Clay Matthews, playing with a separated shoulder, had basically gone invisible over the past three games as a part-time pass rusher.
But despite Matthews’ repeated ineffectiveness, they knew better. And on Saturday, they looked like prophets.
Matthews’ late second-quarter sack and forced fumble of Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford provided a key moment in the Packers’ 38-25 victory to stay in the NFC playoff race. After Mike Daniels recovered, the Packers offense went in for a touchdown and a 15-point lead just before halftime on a balmy Christmas Eve day (37 degrees) at Lambeau Field.
“I was just hoping he wouldn’t throw it,” said Matthews of his sack coming around the right corner to Bradford’s blind side. “We were in a good call. He was getting rid of the ball quick. They’ve been struggling with their offensive line over there as far as hits on the quarterback. Early in the game, we had some pressure. On that one I was just hopeful he would hold on to it. But we were able to get the ball.”
The sack off the edge was a long time coming for Matthews – his first since an Oct. 9 game
against the New York Giants. Matthews did record a sack in the game he suffered the shoulder injury at Philadelphia, but that came as an inside backer where he started due to injuries to Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez.
If there was a turning point with his shoulder injury, it came this week. He was a full participant in practice and as the game wore on Saturday, he was playing on early downs, not just limited to third-down pass rushing like previous games.
“It’s a byproduct of the shoulder,” said Matthews of his increased snaps. “Obviously Julius (Peppers) has been working overtime filling in, same with Tone (Datone Jones), Nick (Perry) and myself. But I felt like naturally once I was able to start contributing in the run game as well as in the pass game, those reps would come along. But it was good though. I felt strong and comfortable making some tackles. Still needs to get better, no doubt about it. But like I said, I’m encouraged by the progress it's made week in and week out.”
Matthews looked like a shell of himself over the 82 snaps he played in the past three games. Against the Vikings, however, he looked just about full-go. Peppers noticed an increased confidence in Matthews after making a few plays in the first half which included a batted pass on a third down. Later, he split a double team which flushed Bradford into Daniels for a sack. He also tipped a pass to snuff out a bubble screen to Adam Thielen and drew a holding call on overmatched tackle T.J. Clemmings. Since the Vikings and Packers last met in Week Two, the Vikings have placed three tackles – Matt Kalil, Andre Smith and Jake Long - on injured reserve.
Perry, playing with a club cast over his broken fingers, took advantage, too, with two sacks to increase his team-leading total to 10. But Matthews led the team in quarterback hits on Bradford and also added three tackles.
“It’s a work in progress,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “(Clay’s) getting stronger each and every week. It’s really the feedback that he’s given (linebackers coach) Winston Moss as the game goes on. That’s really part of your game-day adjustment and boundary management, and that’s the way we’ve been operating Clay and he came up big for us today.”
Added Matthews: “It’s just a feel throughout the week and where I’m at. Fortunately, again, I didn’t set myself back. There were a few times obviously where you have some pain and everything. I think it will continue to get stronger, that’s great especially with this last game and probably with the division on the line and everything. It was good to get back out there and do what I’m accustomed to doing.”
The Packers improved to 9-6 with the victory while the Vikings (7-8) were eliminated from playoff contention. Next Sunday the Packers will take on the Detroit Lions (9-5) at Ford Field in a winner-take-all game for the NFC North. But first the Lions will play the Cowboys at Dallas on Monday night.
Clay Matthews Looks Like Clay Matthews
Just one game-changing play.