Mike McCarthy doesn’t want to talk about last year anymore.
“I've got nothing. I'm done. I'm not trying to be disrespectful,” the Green Bay Packers coach said late Thursday night. “I'm done answering questions about last year.”
Yeah, forget last year. (Even though the question he was responding to wasn’t really about last year.) The time frame everyone should have been talking about in the wake of the team’s 23-10 victory over the Chicago Bears – other than, you know, the present – is two years ago.
Why? Because just as they were utterly dominant during the team’s run to the Super Bowl XLV title, outside linebacker Clay Matthews and shutdown cornerback Tramon Williams played just like they did that year. And the things that held them back last year – oops, sorry Mike – seem like distant memories.
Whether it was Williams’ injured right shoulder (rendered almost useless by nerve damage suffered in the season opener) or Matthews’ incessant double- and triple-teams (the result of opponents having no reason to worry about other pass-rushing threats), McCarthy was right: None of that mattered against the Bears.
Instead, Williams made Bears’ top pass-catching threat Brandon Marshall – the same guy who had nine catches for 119 yards and a touchdown last week and had 10 catches for 127 yards in 2010 when he last visited Lambeau Field – absolutely disappear with exquisite coverage while also picking off two Jay Cutler passes. Matthews, meanwhile, took up residence in the Bears’ offensive backfield, registering a career-high 3.5 sacks on poor Cutler, who couldn’t hide his disdain for his offensive line, particularly left tackle J’Marcus Webb.
“Our defense is special when those guys play like that,” veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said.
Matthews’ harassment of Cutler was part of a seven-sack performance by a Packers pass rush that was among the league’s worst last season. With four against San Francisco’s Alex Smith last Sunday, the unit’s 11 sacks put it almost halfway to last year’s total of 27. Charles Woodson (1.5) and D.J. Smith (one), Mike Daniels (one), Jerel Worthy (one) and Erik Walden (0.5) also got in on the act, but it was Matthews, whose six sacks in two games match his total from all of last season, who led the way.
“Obviously when you’re getting after the quarterback it’s very contagious,” said Matthews, who also put up six sacks in the first two games of the 2010 season, when he finished with 13.5. “I feel good about where I’m at. There’s obviously room for improvement. I never feel like I’ve arrived. But I feel good about where I’m at. Hopefully I’ll continue to get after the quarterback, make some plays and help this team win.”
During the week, Bears offensive coordinator told Chicago-area reporters that his game plan for dealing with Matthews was, “We’re going to try to block him. We’re going to do that. We’re not going to specifically scheme for him if that’s what you’re asking.”
While that quote seemed silly when Matthews was sacking Cutler the second or third time, Matthews said the emergence of other threats should alleviate at least a little bit of all the extra attention he merits.
“I don’t think they can specifically help one person with the talent we have. I think it’s going to be difficult,” Matthews said. “Guys have really stepped their game up. We’ve added some young talent. It’s going to be very difficult to just say I’m the No. 1 guy this year.”
It won’t be hard to say that about Williams, however. The Packers made no secret of their plans to match him up with their opponents’ best wide receivers each week, and the approach worked to perfection on Marshall. While he had help over the top from a safety at times, Williams’ success was predicated on mixing up his coverages on Marshall – pressing him one play, playing off him the next, defensive coordinator Dom Capers calling a zone coverage the play after that.
While Cutler had offhandedly wished the Packers defensive backs “good luck” if they tried to press Marshall, Williams said he didn’t take the quote “out of whack” but did glean some motivation from it. It was also not the worst advice in the world, Williams said.
“With a guy that size, you can't be too physical on him. That's what he wants. He'll beat you most of the time,” Williams said of Marshall, whose first reception came with 7 minutes, 24 seconds left in the game, against Charles Woodson. “I didn’t give him that. We had a good game plan, and they put me in good position to make plays.”
The bad news for Marshall and other NFL wide receiver? Williams still isn’t all the way back from the shoulder injury.
“I'm still progressing. I feel better than I was. I'm not thinking about it like I was,” Williams replied. “I can get better. I can get better.”