Who Is The Real Clay Matthews?

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Clay Matthews gets a hit on Drew Brees in Week 1, but is it too little too late?

One sack.

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.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • Tarynfor 12

    A well written article Chad.

    I,like many cannot be more disappointed in the overall play of the defense and although the INTs have saved us its not a save all for the defense long term.
    CM3 by his fault,the teams fault or whoever is handy to fault is only a small part of the blame if blame is the right word for any of it.
    Wynn is no Jenkins,Neal is only a hope as yet,Walden and Jones seem to be half a Zombo as he at least made an offense account for him,where the other two are just discounted.
    This of coarse is just finger pointing as most can only do but,the pieces for Capers to utilize his schemes we have gotten use to seeing are not available with the couple of players being played due to injury.
    When I watch the games over while not focusing on CM3,this defense is in prevent mode 85% of its plays whereas last year they played in attack mode 85% of the time.
    We have a DL/Wynn who doesn’t dictate accountability along with two OLBs in Walden and Jones who warrant a mere glance of worry.Wynn may get stronger in command but until the OLB opposite CM3 commands some play,we will see a lot more prevent than attack and the rumors/questions keep coming.
    Naturally this is IMO,but CM3 is having an Pro year for what he is doing while others haven’t/aren’t and possibly continue to.

    • Chad Toporski

      I’m wondering if Capers should consider switching Matthews back to the right side to face off with the left tackles. Perhaps Walden and Jones could have more success against the right tackles. Would the trade off be worth it?

  • Jay

    Chad, are there any counts on what his QB hits were last year?

    • Chad Toporski

      When I get some free time I’ll look through the gamebooks and total them up. I’m also interested in his run stuffs.

    • Chad Toporski

      Matthews 2010 numbers, briefly:

      Sacks: 13.5
      QB hits: 23
      Tackles for Loss: 16

      With 7 QH and 4 TFL so far, he’s on track to meet or exceed those areas this year.

  • Ron LC

    Well done and the most complete analysis I’ve seen on a specific issue. Your points add questions as well as answer a lot of things I’ve wondered about.

    The Big one: Capers is ok with the rush? I find that hard to believe. Going back to Denver, Orten had all the time in the world to throw the ball. He was hardly ever rushed. I can’t remember if he even sacked. Maybe once? I’m thinking the aggressive style of play used more often than not last year has been shelved for some reason. He’s playing more zone so that does indicate he has little confidence in man play this year. I guess that can be looked at as bend but don’t break. I hate that term. They are giving up a lot more points this year than last year.

    The reason they are 4-0 is AR and the Offense. The D needs to put together a solid performace againt Atlanta. Abrams is a dirty player and his coach says it’s ok with him. They are going to be head hunting AR and trying to shake him up. If it holds AR to under 300 and a QB rating under 100, the D must turn in a much better performance tha they have so far.

    On CM3, if he is getting more attention why hasn’t the effort shown positive play by the other LB’s. In short where the hell are Walden and Hawk? Is Dom playing them in coverage? Or, are they not performing? So many questions, this week is where the D has to step up and play a solid game.

    • Chad Toporski

      Thanks, Ron.

      Here’s an interesting number: 69.57%. As a percentage of the total number of plays, that is how much offenses are choosing to pass against the Packers defense. No other team in the NFL is being thrown on that much.

      One thing I have noticed in reading some of Capers’ quotes is that his game plans have as much to do with sack production as anything else. It’s been mentioned that the Broncos kept a lot of blockers in play to catch the blitzes, and they were really trying to stretch the defense vertically. Their early success running the ball also caused Capers to back off some, since a successful run against the blitz can really gash the defense for yards.

      In reading some of Bob McGinn’s performance grades for each game, it does seem like the linebackers outside of Matthews are underperforming. Walden isn’t getting much pressure and the ILB’s are not very good in pass coverage.

      You are right, they really need to fix things this week for Atlanta. Because if they can get Michael Turner going, then it’s going to open up White and Jones in the passing game.

  • Tarynfor 12

    HMMM?It must be the way I write or express my thoughts but,isn’t Ron and you Chad saying what I did?

    • Chad Toporski

      Yes, I think we are all on the same page. :-)

      • Ron LC

        You’re right Taryn, I thought it needed emphasis. I’m getting a little tired of people trying to ignore the D’s problems just because they won the first 4 games. If this Defnse doesn’t start to play better things could go bad fast, very fast.

  • Mr. Bacon

    I wonder if the lockout might have a part in this.

    While I don’t doubt Matthews is regressing, it seems that the NFL is having its best offensive numbers ever. It’s almost like the defensive unit is irrelevant this year.

    While I know its a passing league, and has been for quite a while, it just seems to me of all these numbers piling up for stats is pure insanity.

    Somehow Rex Grossman is becoming relevant again, Ryan Fitzpatrick is emerging and Cam Newton puts up 400+ in his first two games.

    Im saying something is up with the NFL and Defense. And if I had to guess, Clay Matthews will come back to himself in the 2nd half of the season.

    • Chad Toporski

      I agree that the NFL has seen a shift in offensive firepower during the first few weeks of this season. That said, I think the big concern within that is the fact that Green Bay ranks so low in comparison to the rest of the league. If their numbers were off from last year but they still ranked in the top half of the league, then I think people would be less concerned.

      As it stands, though, they’re giving up more yards through the air than just about all the other teams.

  • Russell

    Since the Packers can not generate much of a pass rush this year, expect a shoot-out in Atlanta. It may come down to who has the ball last.

  • Andrew

    So off on so many levels. Matthews is grading out exceptionally well by anyone that HAS the time to review tape. CM3 is playing his role in a team first defense. Everyone is keying on him. Walden creates no pressure one on one. Totally misdirected article that I’m sad to see praised. Sacks does not equal good play.

    • Chad Toporski

      If that’s what you think I concluded in my article, then I recommend going back and reading it again.

  • PackersRS

    Another great article Chad. On pair with your “targets” one.

    I agree completely. The first thing that worries is the sack numbers. Then I focused on him against the Bears, and he seemed too hesitant. But his play against Denver was on par to his best performances, in relation to rushing the passer.

    The problem was Denver’s gameplan, that focused almost solely on runs and playaction bootleg maxprotect passes, usually rolling away from Matthews.

    Hard to produce numbers in those conditions, when he’s the only effective pass rusher on the field.

    I think his numbers will come, even if there’s no other pass rusher, because with the production this offense is putting on the field, teams won’t have the option to go maxprotect and work playactions against us, if they want to keep up.

    • Chad Toporski

      Thanks, RS.

      The hesitance in the Bears game was noticeable. That’s why I’m wondering how much of a priority was being placed on containing Cutler. In the Carolina and Chicago games, the Packers played against two quarterbacks who can take off at opportune times. And as we saw in the Super Bowl, Capers is not above using his best pass rusher as a spy.

      I just listened to the “5 Questions with LeRoy Butler” over at JSOnline, and Butler said he’s not concerned about Matthews at all. In fact, he said he’s improving his play as a run stopper and becoming a better overall OLB.

  • RacerX

    Chad,
    Very well written piece.
    I, like you, do not have much free time on my hands. So, I appreciate your time and effort.
    Your analysis is in-depth and thought provoking. Thank you. Don’t let the “nay sayers” bring you down. Head up…Stay strong!

    CM3, coupled with Neal, shall be unleashed…and all will be right in the world.

    Tango Bravo

    • Chad Toporski

      Thanks, Racer! One can only hope Neal gets back in the game soon and can make a difference.