Molding Clay: Packers shift star linebacker inside

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Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
November 11, 2014

GREEN BAY—When Clay Matthews stood inside the locker room during the offseason in 2013—soon after inking a $66 million contract extension—he did not talk about playing inside linebacker.

Instead, he spoke at length about entering the “prime” of his career as a pass rusher. Matthews noted that he rushed the quarterback for only a year and half at USC, vowing he's “still developing.”

Getting to the quarterback with Point A-to-Point B abandon was Matthews' specialty.

Fast forward two seasons and the Green Bay Packers are handicapped by the NFL's 32nd-ranked run defense. So the team made a change. In a 55-14 throttling of the Chicago Bears on Sunday night, Matthews shifted inside. He was productive, too, with 11 tackles (two for loss) and one sack.

The question now is: Will it last? And how much will all of this moving around affect Matthews' specialty—his pass rush?

“No, Clay Matthews is not an inside linebacker,” coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “He's a football player.”

Clearly, this move was an indictment of a crumbling run defense. Change was needed during the bye week. Deep at outside linebacker, thin inside, the Packers moved arguably their best player on defense to their worst position. Someone with 53½ career sacks was needed to stuff the run.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers indicated it is a game-to-game situation, that the Packers will continue to use Matthews at multiple spots. On third down against Chicago, Capers continued to rush Matthews off the edge.

And Capers also said that Matthews was, indeed, receptive to the move inside when the plan was set into motion the Monday after the bye week.

“He's going to do whatever that you feel is going to help the football team,” Capers said, “and that's basically what he said. If this helps our team, then he's on board. Obviously he likes to rush, which everybody does, but really at the outside linebacker position, he's dropped an awful lot from the outside linebacker position.

“He's either rushing or dropping from inside as opposed to outside.”

Maybe he has dropped into coverage outside, but he'll be doing that more inside. And that could potentially negate his explosion—always the X-factor within this defense.

The element of surprise is now gone. Teams have film of Matthews at the new position.

“Would it affect the protections? Maybe,” Capers said. “But I still think that there will be an effectiveness in terms of this package, based on the timing of when we use it.”

The Packers believe they can scheme Matthews into playmaking situations—wherever he's lined up.

In Green Bay's “quad” 4-3 package that sputtered in September, Matthews lined up on one side of the formation. As Capers explained, it was easier for teams to identify where they'd sway their protections. As a 3-4 inside linebacker, he can play from the left or right side based on the call.

The fact Matthews remained a game-changer against Chicago inside encourages coaches.

Capers views the unpredictable movement of dropping and rushing as a positive, not a negative. He pointed to Matthews T-boning the Bears' reverse to receiver Chris Williams for an 8-yard loss.

“That came from a disguise where he was inside and moved outside late and came off the edge,” Capers said. “Those are the types of things that you like to see. I think they create more problems for preparation when they aren't sure exactly where Clay is going to be.”

McCarthy cites his initial message way back in May when the focus was unleashing individual playmakers throughout the front seven. He refuses to categorize Matthews as anything.

Two factors that made this move possible are: Julius Peppers still has gas in the tank at 34 years old, and Nick Perry and Mike Neal are disrupting the quarterback. The three have combined for 10 sacks and two forced fumbles. And Capers reiterates Matthews can be more than a solid placeholder inside.

At $66 million, the Packers need someone who can torpedo a game.

“I think it gives us more options,” Capers said. “You're always looking for as many options as you have. If you get in a game and you're playing your run defensive calls and they aren't working and you don't have anything to go to, that becomes difficult. You look at things, can you address things to make yourself better scheme-wise, can you address things with personnel-wise?

“We have the guys that we have and we like the guys that we have, so it's a matter of trying to fit them into the slots that gives us the best chance in going out and stopping people.”

Green Bay raced ahead of Chicago, 28-0, before Bears' running back Matt Forte even got his fifth carry.

The true test will come in a close game when the Packers must stop the run to get off the field. And then, the Packers must find the right blend of outside and inside snaps.

Sunday was only an intriguing first step.

“We have so much confidence in Clay,” Capers said, “that wherever you're going to put him, he's going to impact the game. He's a guy that just can make a lot of adjustments. He's always going to play aggressively.

“Clay's a bright guy, he sees the big picture. He knows that he's not going to be pigeon-holed into one thing where they can zero in on him.”

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