Matthews leads without the letter

Matthews leads without the letter

No, Clay Matthews insisted, he wasn’t motivated, bothered, hurt, disappointed, or even shocked when his Green Bay Packers teammates didn’t select him as one of the two playoff captains on defense last week.

In fact, the Packers veteran linebacker joked, there may have been some ballot irregularities that led to him losing out to outside linebacker Julius Peppers and safety Morgan Burnett when all the votes were tallied.

“You know what, I’m happy with the captains which were elected,” Matthews said Tuesday, as the Packers prepped for Sunday’s de facto NFC North title game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field. “I know my voice is heard out there. I know these guys rally around me the way I play, the way I talk out there.

“I think it’s like the electoral college. I think I might have won popular votes, but they put it together and Morgan and Julius got it. I don’t know – hanging chads, who knows?”

Then, Matthews’ tone turned serious. If he was bothered by not being elected, which he very well might have been privately, he wasn’t about to confess to it. But he also made it clear that he still believes he is one of the team’s leaders.

“I’m going to be honest with you – the captains that were elected are captains on this team,” he said. “But just because I don’t have a C on my chest doesn’t mean I’m not a captain.”

Later in the day, word came that Matthews, who has recorded 5.5 sacks in the last three games and enters Sunday with 10 sacks on the season, had been voted to his fifth Pro Bowl in six seasons – with no recount required. And captain or not, what he’s done during the second half of the season by stepping far outside his comfort zone while moving inside on defense has been the move of a leader.

If he came off as initially reluctant to make the move, Matthews said, that’s because he was. He’s never denied that, and on Tuesday, he was honest about why: He was worried he might stink at it.

“I think at this point in life, you know what you’re good at. And what I’m good at is playing off the edge – whether it’s the run, pass or rushing the passer. So making a position change, obviously, there’s a lot of fears, and one of them potentially is failure,” Matthews said. “I’m still finding myself not playing a perfect game at inside linebacker, when I have my opportunities in there.”

But he is making enough of them, and it appears defensive coordinator Dom Capers has found the right mix of when to play Matthews inside and when to use him outside after experimenting with him in both places over the course of several weeks. In Sunday’s 20-3 victory over Tampa Bay, Matthews played 45 of the Packers’ 49 defensive snaps. He lined up at outside linebacker both in the base defense (with A.J. Hawk and Sam Barrington as the inside linebackers) and in the dime defense (with Brad Jones as the lone inside linebacker). When the Packers went to their nickel package, Matthews moved inside.

On his three sack plays, Matthews lined up on the right edge in the base defense and delivered a 6-yard sack against tackle Garrett Gilkey on the first, lined up on the right edge in the dime but burst inside to come in unblocked for a 5-yard sack on the second, and lined up on the right edge in the dime and bull rushed tackle Demar Dotson for a sack he shared with defensive end Datone Jones on the third.

The Packers’ post-film coaches’ stats had Matthews for six tackles (four solo) in the game, and the advanced statistical site Pro Football Focus also credited Matthews with an additional quarterback hit. For the season, PFF has Matthews with 10 QB hits and 27 hurries in addition to his 10 sacks. It’s also the fourth time in Matthews’ six NFL seasons that he’s had a double-digit sack total.

“I think Clay has probably had his best year, in my opinion,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy had said on Monday, after being asked if he thought Matthews had been motivated by the captaincy snub. “What he’s done going in to play inside linebacker with not a lot of reps prior to that I think speaks volumes. I think his versatility [has been impressive] – this is the most we’ve used him as far as the changing and the targeting for him. But more important, he’s been a big factor in our run defense. Our run defense has taken a huge step the last eight weeks and he’s definitely part of that.”

Indeed, the Packers enter Sunday’s game ranked 22 nd in the NFL against the run (120.5 yards per game) after ranking at or near the bottom all season.

When the coaches decided to move Matthews inside after the midseason bye week – utilizing a package that had been installed during the offseason but kept under wraps – Green Bay was dead last in the league in run defense.

Matthews didn’t agree with McCarthy’s hypothesis that this has been his best season, calling it instead the season that “has required the most out of me, as far as learning and playing across the board,” as he’s been asked not only to rush the passer and drop into coverage but spy quarterbacks and match up on difficult-to-cover tight ends and running backs while also lining up in a variety of places.

“At first, going into this change, as I continue to say, I was hesitant about it. But now, I’m not going to say it’s always fun learning a new position and dealing with the bumps and bruises during the season, but it’s been fun to showcase a different set of talents as well as be asked to do a different thing and not only do it but excel at it,” said Matthews, who has 67 tackles, one interception, seven pass deflections/breakups and two forced fumbles this season. “I take pride in my skill set and what they ask me to do. At times, it’s covering their best tight end or back out of the backfield, to stopping the run, to rushing the passer. I am very hard on myself and I expect to excel at everything I do.”

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

Comments

comments