Through four games in the 2011 regular season, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews has just one sack. As the 26th overall draft pick two years ago, he notched 10 sacks in his rookie season, followed by a 13.5-sack performance his sophomore year in the NFL. Opposing offenses have resorted to giving him plenty of attention through chips, double teams, and moving the pocket away from his side. Fans and coaches alike have come to expect an elite level of play from Matthews.
And yet it doesn’t seem like they’re getting it.
Despite playing against a porous Chicago Bears offensive line and matching up against pedestrian right tackles, Clay Matthews has just one sack to his name. The worst part is that his sack is no more than a technicality, as first draft pick Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers was running out of bounds on the play.
We gave him some leeway in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints, since Drew Brees is an elite quarterback who can get the ball out of his hands quickly and accurately. The Week 2 matchup against the Panthers proved to be an unexpected performance from a rookie quarterback and a set of receivers that cut holes in the Packers’ secondary. Plus, Newton’s ability to run and the frequent checkdown passes required the linebackers to do some spying.
Then, after Week 3 against the Bears, people began to get worried.
Why hasn’t Clay Matthews been the disruptive force we’ve known him to be? Are the minor injuries and lack of preseason playing time catching up to him? Is the loss of Cullen Jenkins having that much of an effect across the line? Are offensive coordinators figuring out the defense?
It’s a frustrating situation, and despite all the opining from journalists and bloggers, no one has been able to come up with an answer.
Of course, this whole issue is just a slice of the larger problem – the Packers’ lack of a pass rush. Opposing quarterbacks are getting time in the pocket to make their reads, and there has seemingly been no consistent push along the line. This is what makes it challenging to sort out the concerns with Matthews’ performance.
The thing we need to figure out first, then, is whether Clay Matthews’ lack of production is an external problem or an internal problem. Has his lack of sacks been a result of a change in his individual performance, or a product of the defense’s bigger struggles?
Who is the real Clay Matthews? The one with 23.5 sacks over two seasons, or the one we see now?
After looking at as much film as I have available to me (and using what little time I’ve had on my hands), I’ve come to some realizations about Matthews as an outside linebacker and pass rushing specialist.
First and foremost, Clay Matthews’ biggest strengths are his quickness, speed, and an unrelenting motor. He’s not the type of rusher who is going to physically drive a blocker backwards on a consistent basis, and as an outside linebacker, it’s not really expected of him. What you’ll most often see is Matthews looking to make a quick first step to gain leverage and get outside of the blocker. He’ll mix it up from there, but basically it’s his speed and that jump on the snap that makes him successful.
These attributes of Clay Matthews also make him particularly dangerous on stunt moves where he slips inside the defensive tackle and up the gut of the line. Matthews executes this play so fast that offensive linemen rarely have the reaction time to block him. In fact, he forced a holding penalty in the Bears game on such a stunt.
Another item of note is how Matthews has registered his sacks in the past.
Looking back at some of the plays he made in 2010, there were a significant number of instances where Clay Matthews literally chased down the quarterback to get the sack. In getting flushed out of the pocket or perhaps even on a planned bootleg, the quarterback would simply be pursued for the kill by the speedy Matthews.
And finally, it’s important to mention that in 2009, Clay Matthews didn’t record a single sack in 9 of the 16 regular season games. That number dropped to 6 of 16 in 2010; however, he never recorded 2 or more sacks in a single regular season game after the first two weeks, when he registered 6 sacks all together (or 44.4% of his total sacks on the year).
So at one level of the discussion, we might not even be giving things enough time to settle in.
Of course, in the same vein, Matthews is also on track to have just 4 sacks total for 2011. While he has notched four tackles for a loss and seven quarterback hits so far, the sack total – being the most impressive stat – has been a big disappointment and pretty uncharacteristic. There is time for him to turn the tide, but it grows shorter with each passing week.
One thing that isn’t really kept track of, however, is the amount of times Clay Matthews’ pressure off the edge has caused positive plays for the defense.
The most recent example of this is Desmond Bishop’s sack on Kyle Orton against the Denver Broncos on Sunday. In the third quarter on a third-and-6 play, Hawk and Bishop blitz on a cross-dog while Matthews rushes from the left side and breezes by the offensive line untouched. The running back, who was aligned on the other side of the quarterback, has to make a quick adjustment with his blocking, which subsequently keeps him from picking up the oncoming Bishop.
So while the play is more of a breakdown in protection than dominance in one-on-one matchups, it serves as a good example of a sack that could just have easily been attributed to Matthews.
There are also instances where the pressure has created hurried throws that lead to interceptions.
I have heard it said before that good pressure leads to interceptions, while good coverage leads to sacks. And while the passing defense has been less than spectacular so far this year, the Packers are tied for first place with 8 interceptions on the season. They are also tied for eighth place in sacks with 11.
That has to matter on at least some level.
In a recent article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, veteran journalist Tom Silverstein notes that defensive coordinator Dom Capers is currently more worried about the coverage in the secondary than he is the pressure up front.
“He doesn’t share outsiders’ opinion that the pass rush is nonexistent and he isn’t blitzing enough to create pressure,” writes Silverstein. “Rather, he points to failures elsewhere, most notably the deep secondary, that showed up again in the Packers’ 49-23 victory over Denver on Sunday.”
The fact that Clay Matthews has accrued 7 quarterback hits on the season is a good indicator that he is making to the quarterback, but either he is getting there too late or the quarterback is getting the ball out too quickly.
Look, we can spend all day trying to dissect the problems of the defense, but as I said before, the concern over Matthews is just a piece of the larger puzzle. (Even though it feels like some people are making it the crux of the issue.) And no matter how much data we mine from the game statistics, it will never tell us the why of the situation.
So has Matthews really lost a step, or are we just seeing his performance as it would look in a slightly different execution of the defense?
After looking at some of the footage from 2010 and 2011, it doesn’t appear as though Matthews is playing much differently. I have noticed some hesitation on his rushes, but without any insight into the play call, it’s hard to tell if he’s doing it to keep contain and/or spy on the running back.
Because as an OLB in a 3-4 system, we have to remember that Matthews will take on multiple roles. He’s not a defensive end that can simply attack the line every down, since he is also needed to fulfill coverage duties at times. And if you watched the game against the Carolina Panthers, you saw him trying to take a away a lot of the check down passes and scrambles by Cam Newton.
In fact, on the Panthers’ final fourth down attempt in the red zone, it was Clay Matthews who was able to cut off Newton’s scramble attempt from behind.
I will say this: if Matthews isn’t playing up to his potential right now, then it’s not by much. Perhaps we as fans have been overhyping him to the extent that we lost sight of everything he truly does in Capers’ system. We like to think that sexy statistics like sack counts mean everything, when in fact they are just a small part of a players’ performance. And like any statistic, sack counts need some context to really have meaning.
Perhaps it is the real Clay Matthews we are watching right now, and perhaps it’s the same football player we’ve been watching all along.
The only difference is that now he has significantly less support from the other pass rushers and an underperforming secondary. Just as a single great wide receiver needs other players to make him successful in an offense, a single great outside linebacker needs the rest of the team doing their job in order for him to be a bigger factor.
My challenge to you as a fan is to watch Clay Matthews’ every move against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday Night Football. And if you have time this week, check out some of his plays on NFL.com, YouTube, or even your DVR so that you have something of a baseline to work with.
Study what he is doing now and compare it to what he has done in the past. . . and then forget about the numbers.
Because while statistics might tell you what’s (not) happening, they can’t really tell you how or why it’s (not) happening. For that, you need your own eyes to make some observations and analyze what the player is actually doing and what he is being asked to do.
Until then, you will never truly know the real Clay Matthews, because he is more than just a number.——————Follow @ChadToporski