Clay Matthews pulls no punches about the performance of Green Bay’s 2011 defense.
"We played bad ball — plain and simple," Matthews told FOXSports.com.
On the bright side, there’s nowhere to go but up after finishing as the NFL’s 32nd-ranked unit. How high the Packers climb will depend largely on whether Matthews can re-emerge as a pass-rushing terror as Green Bay opens its regular season against visiting San Francisco Sunday on FOX (4:25 p.m. ET kickoff).
Matthews was expected to contend for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors after a breakthrough 2010 campaign. He registered 13.5 sacks in the regular season and 3.5 more during Green Bay’s first three playoff contests. Matthews also made the key defensive play in Super Bowl XLV, forcing a fourth-quarter fumble by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall that helped the Packers secure the victory.
Matthews, though, finished last season with only six sacks, even though there was no drop-off in his own personal efforts. Matthews was the recipient of frequent double-team blocks and not deployed as effectively by coordinator Dom Capers as in 2010.
Compounding the problem, none of Matthews’ teammates took advantage of the extra attention he was receiving. The Packers tied for 27th in sacks with 29, a bad sign for an attacking 3-4 scheme.
"Obviously, being a part of that makes you appreciate what we were able to do in the year we got to the Super Bowl," Matthews said. "That being said, with all the guys we brought in and refocusing on what we want to accomplish and being given a clean slate, there’s a new sense of urgency. Hopefully, that turns out a top-tier defense again like we’re used to."
Toward that end, the Packers made two significant moves — addressing the front seven in the draft and shifting Matthews to a different position.
The Packers have much better interior depth in 2012, which Matthews believes should translate to improved pressure between the offensive tackles. The key addition was first-round pick Nick Perry. An immediate starter, Perry is expected to provide a pass-rushing complement to Matthews at left outside linebacker.
"He’s got a lot more responsibility and pressure put on his shoulders being that we need him now," Matthews said of his former college teammate at Southern Cal. "He’s really taken it upon himself to learn the playbook and kind of be my shadow following me around and figuring out what he needs to do and how to go about his business.
"He’s done a fantastic job. His willingness to learn is great. I think that’s why we’re comfortable throwing him out there in Week 1."
Ideally, Perry will become comfortable in Green Bay’s defense quickly enough that he can begin switching sides with Matthews to create more unpredictability. But until that happens, the Packers have planted Perry on the left and shifted Matthews to right outside linebacker.
Although he played predominantly on the left side for the past two seasons, Matthews said it didn’t take him long to readjust his footwork accordingly.
"I know there are some people out there who feel they can’t rush off one side or the other," he said. "But I felt that same way when I switched to the left side. I think it’s more mental than anything else."
Matthews must excel Sunday if he’s going to affect 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley emerged as a Pro Bowl protector in 2011.
"He’s very athletic," said Matthews, who cited the fact Staley began his college career at Central Michigan as a tight end. "You have to take that into consideration. But like with any tackle, you try to exploit any weakness they have and find ways to help yourself and the team out."
There is a personal element to the Matthews-Staley matchup as well.
"I got to meet him a few times at the Pro Bowl," Matthews said. "We’re good friends. But I guess we’ll have to be enemies for the day."