GREEN BAY, Wis. – After Clay Matthews racked up 3.5 sacks in Green Bay’s Week 2 win against the Chicago Bears, slightly exaggerated compliments were flowing freely in the Packers locker room.
Cornerback Tramon Williams called Matthews “a freak of nature.” Safety Charles Woodson said, “Nobody can block Clay.”
It sure looks like the beginning of the 2010 season all over again for Matthews, who also had six sacks through two games that season and finished with 13.5. But if no one can block this freak of nature, what’s the difference between this year and last, when Matthews had only six sacks the entire season?
Perhaps part of the explanation for Matthews’ overwhelming early success is that it’s a case of less is more. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is blitzing less this season, which was especially true against the Bears.
Capers was asked approximately what percentage of plays he called for a blitz in that game, to which the typically talkative coordinator simply replied, “The lowest percentage in a long time.”
For Capers, being able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback without blitzing is a huge benefit.
“To me, it’s one of the real keys,” he said. “To be a good defensive team, you have to be able to rush four and get pressure because then you can mix a lot of different coverage combinations. But if you always have to commit five or six, you’re going to be singled up and it makes it a lot easier for the quarterback.”
So, if the Packers aren’t blitzing as often and yet are getting a lot more sacks – they lead the league with 11 after ranking 27th with 29 last year — is Matthews simply winning one-on-one matchups against the offensive line?
“In the middle of a play, protection looks like it’s holding up good, and then next thing you know, you see ‘52′ (Matthews) sliding in there for a tackle and it’s just like, ‘Wow,’ ” rookie defensive lineman Jerel Worthy said.
Matthews’ six sacks this season are more than the Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs have combined. In fact, there are only 10 teams in the entire NFL that have as many sacks as Matthews has all by himself. Through two games, it does appear as if Matthews is facing fewer double- and-triple-team blocks. Last season, Matthews was being blocked by multiple offensive linemen on nearly every passing play.
“I’ve seen some people get double-teamed in my life, but I’ve never seen more teams and more schemes to double-team Clay,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said recently regarding the 2011 season. “I think an offense can basically look at one man and say we’re not going to allow this guy to make a play. We’re going to put two on him everywhere he goes, and sometimes three.
“Offensive coordinators said we cannot let ‘52′ (Matthews) get started. We can’t let him get to the quarterback. So we’ve got to take him out of the game and see if anybody else can apply pressure.”
That is where the Packers’ current rookie class comes into play. A big reason for Matthews not getting to the quarterback in 2011 was that there wasn’t enough talent around him to scare opponents. But with first-round pick Nick Perry showing strength and a few power moves at the outside linebacker spot opposite Matthews, there is one more quality player for offenses to worry about. Though Perry doesn’t yet have a sack, his bull-rush move in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers forced quarterback Alex Smith up in the pocket and allowed Matthews to get the takedown. That was one of four quarterback hurries this season that Perry has been credited with by ProFootballFocus.com.
Rookie defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Worthy have also contributed, each picking up sacks in Week 2.
Now that Matthews is more than back on track, the rest of the defense will need to continue playing well. Even if rookies like Worthy and Perry are getting to the quarterback, opposing offensive coordinators are still likely going to watch film from the 2011 season to see how Matthews was contained. But if Green Bay’s defense this season is just a better overall group than it was a year ago, Matthews’ sacks will continue to add up in a hurry.
“It’s about opportunities,” coach Mike McCarthy said of Matthews. “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, discussion that eventually comes down to matchups.
“They’re going to react to Clay and 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.”