Of all the big plays Clay Matthews III made Sunday, one in particular stood out to first-year Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
With the Detroit Lions facing fourth-and-1 at the Packers‘ 21 and the game still in doubt near the end of the first quarter, quarterback Daunte Culpepper faked a quick inside handoff and pitched the ball wide to running back Kevin Smith.
It was a play the Lions used successfully in short-yardage situations earlier this season. But Matthews and fellow first-round rookie B.J. Raji were ready after seeing it in practice all week, and they dropped Smith for a 1-yard loss.
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“They’re going to go for it on fourth and one, you make a play to stop them and they’re off on downs,” Capers said. “Those are the kind of defining plays in games.”
And a defining moment for Matthews.
Playing for the first time as an every-down outside linebacker in Capers’ 3-4 defense, Matthews had two sacks and three tackles for losses as the Packers beat the Lions 26-0.
“I’m always looking to make an impact,” Matthews said. “Obviously, I can’t say that I’ve arrived or anything along those lines. I still feel I’ve got a ways to go. I’m still young, and I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m glad to be making a few plays and making the impact that I am.”
It was a breakout performance for Matthews, who came to the Packers with a big-time background. He worked his way up from walk-on to starter at Southern California, the same school where his father and uncle, Bruce, played before going on to the NFL. Matthews’ grandfather also played in the NFL.
Matthews was slowed by a hamstring injury for much of training camp and spent the first four regular-season games playing mainly in nickel situations and on special teams. With Sunday’s performance, he might have claimed a permanent place on the field.
“I was very pleased with Clay, and really the whole defense,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think we had 100 percent across the board as far as winning performances.”
McCarthy said Matthews was one of five players to earn a game ball Sunday.
Matthews’ performance wasn’t perfect, of course. Virtually all of his big plays came in the first quarter and a half of Sunday’s game, and he was fairly quiet in the second half.
But McCarthy said he didn’t see any signs on film that Matthews wore down. Instead, more of Matthews’ big plays came in the base defense – something the Packers didn’t use much after the Lions fell behind and started throwing.
Capers said the decision to expand Matthews’ role was made during last week’s bye based on his performance in the loss to the Vikings, which included a remarkable play to wrestle the ball away from star running back Adrian Peterson and return it 42 yards for a touchdown.
“We brought him here to be a three-down player,” Capers said. “We had him in there early in training camp and he had the hamstring issue. Since that time, I think he’s played well enough in our sub (nickel) package that he deserved to have an opportunity to play all three downs.”
Veteran Brady Poppinga played outside linebacker in the base defense through the first four games, doing a solid job but failing to record a sack from a position where pass-rush pressure is expected. Poppinga seemed resigned to the bench after Sunday’s game.
“Man, he played well, and you’ve got to let him go,” Poppinga said. “They brought him in here to do what he did (Sunday). You’ve got to let him go and let him do his thing.”
Separately, McCarthy said receiver Jordy Nelson has a knee sprain and might miss two weeks. Raji has a sprained ankle and could miss time in practice this week.