GREEN BAY, Wis. — Clay Matthews believes he’s been known mostly as a "sack guy." With 50 sacks in his first five NFL seasons, Matthews is not mistaken. But now, the Green Bay Packers star outside linebacker wants to be known for a lot more.
Through two games this season, Matthews is rushing the quarterback less and dropping back into coverage more than he has in the previous four years. It’s all part of the Packers’ plan to try to make Matthews more difficult for opposing offenses to prepare for.
When Matthews entered the league as a first-round pick in 2009, his rookie year was spent mostly playing right outside linebacker. The next two years, he played left outside linebacker. Then back to the right side in 2012 and over again to the left in 2013. This season, defensive coordinator Dom Capers is moving the four-time Pro Bowl selection around a lot more frequently and not sending him after the quarterback as often.
"I think I can do it all," Matthews said. "I think over the years I’ve been known as a sack guy, but I think what’s been lost in the shuffle is the fact that I can cover, I can play in space and rush the passer as well."
Yes, Matthews is publicly buying into the new plan that’s been set out for him. That was somewhat in question after Matthews uncharacteristically did not speak with reporters in the week that followed Green Bay’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks and then did not meet with the media after the Packers’ win over the New York Jets.
But if Matthews is actually frustrated with what’s being asked of him, he’s hiding it quite well.
"I’m excited that I have the opportunity to go out there, rush the passer, do everything that I can do," Matthews said. "At the end of the day, I love making plays, I love getting after the quarterback. Dom and the rest of the staff will find ways for me to make plays, and I think we’ll continue to see that moving forward whether it’s in coverage, rushing the passer, whatever it may be."
Though it’s obviously still early in the season, the percentage change in how often Matthews is rushing the quarterback indicates that this is a strategy that’s likely to stay all year. According to data from ProFootballFocus, Matthews has gone into coverage on 19 of the 69 times that a quarterback has dropped back to pass. Compare that 72.4 percent pass-rush rate this year to recent seasons of 84.5 percent (2013) and 84.4 percent (2012), Matthews has not been given a chance to be "the sack guy" as much.
"I think what we’ve been doing has worked," Matthews said. "Ultimately, at the end of the day, they brought me in here to get after the quarterback, but I think when you look beyond that, if you have someone with a unique set of talents … I think you have to use your athletes in a special way, and I think that’s what we’re doing here."
Matthews used former Packers defensive back Charles Woodson (who was the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year) as a comparison that when a player is very talented it’s easier to have success when being used in a variety of roles and in a variety of spots on the field.
"You see me on the left, you see me on the right, you see me in the middle, you see me covering a 7-route in one-on-one coverage," Matthews said. "So yeah, you’ll see me doing it all."
Head coach Mike McCarthy is a believer that Matthews’ new, adjusted role is the right move for everyone involved.
"When you have an exceptional football player, when you line him up in the same place every single time, you help the offense," McCarthy said. "If you want to chip him, if you want to slide to him, if you’re able to practice it all week, ‘Clay Matthews is over there’ or ‘Clay Matthews is over there,’ it’s an easier training process for the opponent.
"It’s just really having Clay do the same things he’s always done and just move him around."
Well, it’s not exactly the same thing that Matthews has always done. The arrival of Julius Peppers has helped the Packers to allow Matthews to pass rush from the right side, from the left side and up the middle, while also sending him in coverage more than a quarter of the time. That’s not the same thing Matthews has always done. It’s combining everything Matthews has ever done and switching it around from one play to the next.
"What we’re trying to accomplish is the fact that we’re trying to present problems for the opponents’ offense and not just lining me up in one spot," Matthews said.
Early in Matthews’ career, he was in coverage at a similar rate that he is now. As a rookie in 2009, he pass-rushed on just 70 percent of defensive snaps. His opportunities to get after the quarterback then rose by more than 14 percent over the following four seasons. That coincided from having 10 sacks in his rookie year to having a career-high 13.5 sacks in 2010 and nearly matching that mark with 13.0 sacks in 2012.
Matthews has one sack so far this season, though he would have 1.5 sacks if not for a defensive holding penalty downfield called on Brad Jones.
"I think I’m doing fine," Matthews said.
While it’s certainly up for debate whether the NFL’s highest-paid linebacker should be spending additional time away from quarterbacks, Matthews is seemingly convinced that it’s the right thing for the Packers to do with him this season.
"Whether it’s out of a 3-4, 4-3 look or whatever it may be, I believe I can do it and I believe I can do it to a high level," he said.