GREEN BAY – Clay Matthews understood what needed to be done last season.
The Packers linebacker, coming off a Pro Bowl season splitting time at outside and inside linebacker, was going to be asked to play predominately inside for the sake of a defense that significantly improved after his midseason switch the year before.
So Matthews attended meetings in a new classroom, learned how to relay play calls and accepted a whole new level of responsibility in a vastly different role in the heart of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme.
After some initial turbulence, the Packers’ defense settled in as the season progressed and a lot of its production could be tied to Matthews playing inside.
“I’ve always tried to be a team player,” said Matthews after Thursday’s organized team activities. “I think I kind of exemplified that in making the switch. I don’t think many players would do that with the success I’d like to think I had on the outside, but I think it really helped this team out.”
As much as his presence inside helped the Packers last season – especially after Sam Barrington suffered a season-ending foot injury in the opener – the team made a big sacrifice in sliding its third all-time leader in sacks out of his best position.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy has been clear this offseason about his preference to slide Matthews back outside in 2016, a goal he outlined for the six-time Pro Bowler during the exit interviews after last season.
So far, it’s been smooth sailing for Matthews in getting acclimated back outside. Other than going back to his original meeting room, he didn’t have to change anything different with his training to prepare.
“I feel like that’s my most natural position, but it almost feels like I never left that room and never left that spot of rushing off the edge,” Matthews said. “It feels good to get back out there and work with ‘Pep’ and the other boys. But yeah, I’m excited about it. It’s obviously a position that I’m most comfortable with (and) hopefully that’s the case moving forward.”
Matthews had a career-high 84 tackles last season and led the defense in both quarterback pressures (27) and hits (14), but he saw his regular-season sack total dip to 6½.
The door still isn’t completely closed on Matthews playing inside – Capers indicated last week that there still will be times when he’ll move there – but the Packers like their holdings at the position with a returning Barrington, Jake Ryan, rookie Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas.
They have a multitude of options for how they use Matthews with ample depth outside. Along with nine-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers, the Packers re-signed former first-round pick Nick Perry and drafted Utah State’s Kyler Fackrell in the third round this year.
However, everything starts with Matthews putting pressure on the quarterback.
“I think it’s great,” said Peppers, who’s coming off his ninth season with 10 or more sacks. “I think that’s his natural position. He’s going to get back there where he can put more pressure on the quarterback. I think it’s going to help out the team in a lot of different ways.”
Now entering his eighth NFL season, Matthews believes the past 1½ years he’s spent inside have helped develop his understanding of the game and his role in the defense.
The past experience also should help him on the future occasions he’s called upon to work inside in a particular package or look.
Matthews’ primary motivation is helping mold the Packers into a championship-caliber defense, and seeing how many of the NFL’s other top defenses mix up their pass rushers to create unpredictability weighs heavily into those plans.
“Clay stays on top of the total defense,” Capers said. “He likes being able to move around. There’s times that he’ll stem from outside back inside. He can certainly do a lot of different things, which we like. You look at the number of players on our defense who play multiple roles.”
After spending last offseason learning a new position, Matthews has been able to regain comfort at the spot he’s recorded a majority of his 67½ career sacks.
So does he have any regrets about playing inside?
“Not at all,” Matthews said. “I think if anything it proves the versatility that I possess and at the same time gave me a different view of understanding the defense so that way when I become an awesome D-coordinator I’ll know what I’m talking about rather than just rushing the quarterback.”
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