GREEN BAY – Clay Matthews has seen it before.
He was a key cog in both the Packers’ championship defense in the 2010 season and the unit that throttled Seattle for 56 minutes in the 2014 NFC title game.
Getting back to a Super Bowl will require that level of defense in Green Bay again, and Matthews believes his side of the ball is overdue to come through.
“People will probably laugh at me when I say we’d like to make this a defensive team, because obviously with Aaron (Rodgers) at the helm it’ll never be known as that,” Matthews said on Tuesday, the first day of offseason workouts. “But it’s probably about time we kind of take things over a bit in our regard.”
The process starts now, and Matthews likes a few things working in the Packers’ favor.
For one, he’s healthy again after an injury-riddled 2016 that saw him record a career-low five sacks. Matthews missed four of the season’s first nine games and then played through a difficult shoulder injury over the final six games plus the playoffs.
The shoulder didn’t need surgery, which was a plus, and he’s feeling much like he did three years ago after recovering from a twice-broken thumb and rebounding with an 11-sack season.
“It definitely was rough,” Matthews said of last season. “I feel great. Unfortunately, the shoulder wasn’t going to heal up until I had a full offseason to recover. It’s as close to 100 (percent) as I can ask for.
“I’m really eager and kind of champing at the bit to get back out there, show my worth and finally have some health on my side.”
He’s also thrilled the Packers re-signed Nick Perry as a partner-in-crime at outside linebacker. While Julius Peppers’ presence will be difficult to replace, Matthews sees Perry as a rising star, and the two might finally be able to become the bookend, pass-rush tandem GM Ted Thompson hoped for five years ago when he drafted Perry in the first round.
“I just had this conversation with Nick when we got into town,” Matthews said. “Nick had an exceptional year last year, and I was bit by the injury bug. I’ve had years I’ve gotten after the quarterback and he hasn’t been able to finish the season.
“If you’re able to put us together, I think the possibilities are very great. It’s obviously a volatile position, but … hopefully we can be what Ted and everyone envisioned for us.”
Matthews plans to “stay ready” to move around on defense and perhaps play “all over” again, as he has the last few years, but pressuring the quarterback will be his top priority. He also noted Jayrone Elliott and Kyler Fackrell will have to take advantage of their increased playing time on the edge with Peppers and Datone Jones now gone.
Improvement from younger players will be paramount at cornerback as well after Atlanta’s passing game overwhelmed Green Bay’s defense in the decisive NFC title game.
All three veteran defensive players who spoke to reporters on Tuesday – Matthews, defensive lineman Mike Daniels and safety Morgan Burnett – expressed the utmost confidence third-year corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins would bounce back after a rough 2016.
“Definitely,” Daniels said. “They were hurt. Everybody was hurt, and people tend to forget that. Everybody has taken this offseason to get healthy. We saw some great things out of these guys when they were rookies, and you’d like to think they made a significant jump from last year to now.”
Added Burnett: “They just need to be themselves. That’s the thing about this game, it’s going to challenge you in different ways to get better. Keep grinding, keep working hard, and don’t put any added pressure on yourself, because we’re all in this together.”
The return of veteran corner Davon House after two seasons in Jacksonville helps the unit, and the draft could provide reinforcements as well. Burnett said House “fit right in” on Day 1 and provides a “veteran presence” for the young guys.
A sense of urgency certainly exists.
“Obviously we didn’t finish where we needed to, and that’s a joint effort with not only the DBs but the pass rush,” Matthews said. “But we have a lot of optimism heading into this year with our entire defense, and I think you need to.
“We’re not getting any younger,” Matthews continued, speaking about players like him, Rodgers and Jordy Nelson, “and at the same time, our window for success and winning another championship is closing as we get older. It puts extra emphasis on the fact that we have to get these young guys going.”