GREEN BAY, Wis. — Clay Matthews may have been a little too good to begin this season. With six sacks in the Packers’ first two games, Matthews matched his 2011 season total and showed opposing teams that his statistical drop-off in production was nothing more than a one-year glitch.
After the fourth-year linebacker dominated the 49ers and Bears in Weeks 1 and 2 and was on pace to surpass his 13.5-sack total from 2010 before midseason, Matthews didn’t face nearly as many one-on-one matchups against the Seahawks and Saints the past two weeks.
“They let me have some fun in the first two weeks,” Matthews said. “Now it’s move lateral and try to add a few more options for me to move around and have some fun within the defense.”
Matthews lined up mostly as Green Bay’s left outside linebacker last season but switched back over to right outside linebacker this year. However, six sacks in the first two games meant Matthews wasn’t able to line up every down on the right side and expect the offensive line not to double- or triple-team him.
“I definitely have my work cut out for me, to say the least,” Matthews said. “Offenses are making a point to try to limit my production in a game, and it’s a natural progression.”
It’s now up to defensive coordinator Dom Capers to find weaknesses and strategic gaps of upcoming opponents so Matthews can get into favorable situations. Matthews has bounced inside and pass-rushed up the middle, trying to draw the center or a guard out and force them to stop him without any help.
“It’s always fun when you have a guy like Clay,” Capers said. “Because you know with Clay’s ability, when he gets one-on-one situations, the percentages are normally pretty good. People have four games of tape on you and they study it, and what you’ve done, they certainly work very hard on.
“As you go through the course of the season, it’s important that you look at it in segments in terms of what you want to continue to do and what you want to change up.”
For Matthews, his favorite moments are when he’s able to take down the quarterback and show off his well-known flex pose. But those opportunities have been rare the past two games, with Matthews unable to sack Seattle’s Russell Wilson and not getting to Saints quarterback Drew Brees until late in the third quarter.
Matthews’ frustration with the constant attention on him may have shown slightly when he barely celebrated his sack of Brees. After that game, Matthews responded “No, not at all” when asked if he’s excited for the challenge of having to beat multiple linemen now in order to pick up a sack.
“I enjoy my one-on-one matchups, and they’re going to be few and far between now,” Matthews said. “So I just have to make an emphasis of winning those. But maybe in years prior, where I’ve done my job of taking up two (blockers), it’s not good enough anymore. I have to win those double-teams and be that playmaker that they count on in this defense.”
Matthews is right. The Packers do need him to be a playmaker. Though there were several factors involved in Green Bay’s defensive struggles last season, it didn’t help that Matthews wasn’t picking up sacks at the same rate he had in his first two years in the NFL.
The Packers defense has been much improved so far in 2012, and it’s of little surprise that it’s happening during a terrific stretch for Matthews. Entering Week 5, Green Bay is ninth in the league in yards allowed and 10th in points allowed.
It also helps that the Packers are getting solid production from their rookies, including outside linebackers Nick Perry and Dezman Moses, defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, safety Jerron McMillian and cornerback Casey Hayward. After returning from a one-game suspension, fifth-year outside linebacker Erik Walden has also looked better in the pass rush this season than he did a year ago.
“I think we’ve gotten pretty good pressure,” Capers said. “I think through the first quarter of the season, I don’t see that as a deficiency. I think we’ve got more flexibility than what we’ve had in terms of pressure. We’re using more personnel groups trying to get speed on the field at times in what we think are more definite passing situations.”
During Green Bay’s Super Bowl-winning season in 2010, the Packers were second in the NFL in sacks. Last year, they dropped all the way down to 27th, but now Green Bay is back near the top of the league, ranked fifth.
Of the Packers’ 14 team sacks this season, seven are from Matthews. He’ll likely need to continue getting 50 percent of the sacks in order to keep Green Bay in the top five, but Capers believes Matthews is capable of doing that.
“Clay’s smart,” Capers said. “He’s athletic enough to do it. He enjoys the challenge. When you have a guy like Clay, you have to keep him challenged. He enjoys the challenge week to week and seeing how he’s going to fit in and what he’s doing.”