Clay Matthews has done the arithmetic before. It’s a folly of an exercise, of course – extrapolating any statistic, much less sacks, based on two games of regular-season evidence is unlikely to correctly predict what the sum will be at year’s end.
Nevertheless, the Green Bay Packers star outside linebacker insisted on doing the easy calculation – picture Aaron Rodgers and his Cal-Berkeley education (two years, anyway) making a USC joke here if you’d like – just as he did in 2010, the last time he started like gangbusters.
That’s what the math says entering Monday night’s game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, a ridiculous number that would more than double Michael Strahan’s NFL-record (and, allegedly, Brett Favre-aided) 22.5 sacks in 2001. Historically, such fast starts by pass rushers have petered out for various reasons – increased pass-protecting attention, injury – and Matthews knows that all too well.
In 2010, when he had six sacks in the first two weeks, Matthews saw his productivity plummet, not only because of added blocking attention but because he suffered a midseason stress fracture in his shin. While he played through the injury – he missed only one game that season, with a hamstring injury that predated the shin, while also enduring quadriceps and ankle injuries – his production suffered, and he wound up with 13.5 sacks in 15 games.
Of course, that was more than double the single-digit total he put up last season, when the Packers’ 29 sacks ranked 27th in the league, and no team had a worse sack percentage (sacks per dropback) than the Packers’ 4.28 percent.
Matthews, the team’s lone consistent pass-rushing threat, drew constant added attention and finished with only six sacks. While he did register 43 quarterback hurries and 22 quarterback hits in 16 games (including playoffs), according to ProFootballFocus.com, he made his third straight Pro Bowl based more on that (and reputation) than actual sack production.
Perhaps that’s why Matthews is more focused on how he is feeling and less on how he is doing.
“I like the way I’m playing right now. I would say that I’ll continue to play that way throughout the season – provided I stay healthy. There’s a little bit of luck to it,” Matthews said.
“I’m not going to make any guarantees or promises because I’ve done this before, two years ago, and I was well short of a sack record, let alone 48 sacks. I’ll just keep playing the way I know how, if that’s six sacks from here on out or 48, and I’ll have fun with it.”
He is certainly having fun right now, excited about the pass-rushing help he’s getting from others – “studs,” he calls them – and the possibilities if protégé Nick Perry, reenergized Erik Walden, undrafted rookie surprise Dezman Moses and rookie defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels keep progressing.
“Last year’s last year. We’ve put that behind us now, as with everything – with the loss, how it went, the 15-1 record. We’re starting new now,” Matthews said. “The great thing is we’ve got a clean slate, we’ve gotten off to a good start, we’ve done some things well and we need to continue to do that here in Week 3.”
Entering Week 3, Matthews’ six sacks – 2.5 of the Packers’ four against the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener and 3.5 of the Packers’ seven against the Chicago Bears last week – put him well ahead of Carolina’s Dwan Edwards (3.5), Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis (three), Chicago’s Henry Melton (three) and Cleveland’s D’Qwell Jackson.
But since the NFL made sacks an official statistic in 1982, six players have registered six or more sacks in the first two games of a season a combined seven times, including Matthews’ two. And only one – Mark Gastineau, in 1984 – was able to even approximate that pace the rest of the year.
Most recently – among players not named Matthews – Cincinnati’s Antwan Odom registered seven sacks in the first two games of the 2009 season, including five sacks in a victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field. He finished with just eight, felled by a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in the sixth game of the season.
Other fast starts followed Matthews’ 2010 path. Detroit’s William Gay, who had 6.5 after two games in 1983, finished with 13.5; the Los Angeles Raiders’ Anthony Smith, who had six sacks in 1993, finished with 12.5; Kansas City’s Derrick Thomas, who had six in 1998, finished with 12. Only Gastineau parlayed his six-sack start into a 22-sack season, with his 1984 record lasting until Strahan took down Favre in the 2001 regular-season finale at the Meadowlands.
“He’s off to an outstanding start – both (against) the run and the pass,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said enthusiastically. “This is his fourth year, he’s been healthy, I think he’s got an excellent feel for the scheme. So we just want him to keep playing the way he’s been playing.”
The challenge, of course, will be that opponents figure to stop playing him the way they’ve been playing him. The 49ers believed left tackle Joe Staley could handle Matthews one-on-one, while the Bears gave beleaguered left tackle J’Marcus Webb help less than half the time. The Seahawks, with rookie quarterback Russell Wilson to protect, figure to be more much cautious and attentive.
“That’s pretty sick. That’s a little bit too much, and you can tell him to back off that pace,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Matthews’ six sacks in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters. Having coached Matthews (and Perry, for that matter) in college at USC – where Matthews was a one-season starter on defense before the Packers picked him in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft – Carroll has followed Matthews’ ups and downs closely.
“It’s a marvelous start,” Carroll continued. “He’s had an extraordinary career already, and I’m thrilled for him – as all of our (USC) guys are. Everybody supports everybody, and we’re all thrilled for anybody that does well. He’s just kicking butt. So we’ll try to slow him down a little bit this weekend.”
That will leave it up to Capers and Matthews to figure out a countermove, and while Capers’ initial answer on Saturday was to suggest moving Matthews around more – he rushed from an inside linebacker spot four times against the Bears and once from the left side, where he’d played the 2010 and 2011 seasons – it’s not something that Capers sees as realistic on every play.
“It’s like anything. When we look at an offense, we look at who their top two or three producers are, and (ask), what do you have to try to do to limit their production? And offenses do the same thing to a defense,” Capers said. “They’re going to say, ‘Well, this is where we have to start – we have to know where 52 is.’”
Added head coach Mike McCarthy: “It’s about opportunities. That’s what the coaching staff sits around and game plans for and spends extra time. It’s always trying to create as many opportunities for your players as possible, particularly your playmakers. So it’s part of every game-plan decision, (and the) discussion that eventually comes down to match-ups. They’re going to react to Clay, and (the issue is) how are we going to react to their reaction and be proactive with our schemes to try to combat – whether they’re chipping or double-teaming or sliding – whatever their reaction’s going to be.”
This is where Matthews believes the team’s other would-be pass-rushers will help him. While he said he expects to continue to rush predominantly from the right side, he believes the easier task of locating him won’t solve an opposing offense’s problems. He even had a Freudian slip of sorts when asked about the help he is getting from others.
“You add better players to the defense – I’m not going to say better – you add playmakers to the defense, it absolutely is going to help individuals, and I’m included in that,” he said. “From all reports coming out of there (Seattle), it looks like I’m going to have my hands full, but that’s good and that’s the natural progression of a playmaker on this defense – you’re going to get extra attention.