GREEN BAY—The Packers have moved Clay Matthews around before, but this was different.
Matthews called it a “five-day crash course in middle linebacker” this past week, and that’s the position he played on most first and second downs in Sunday night’s 55-14 blowout of the Bears at Lambeau Field.
The Packers moved Matthews off the line of scrimmage and lined him up next to A.J. Hawk to help shore up the league’s last-ranked run defense. He then shifted back to his customary outside pass-rushing spot on third downs.
The result was arguably Matthews’ most impactful game of the season. He plugged the middle, chased plays to the sideline and still got after the quarterback. The press box statisticians credited him with a team-high 11 tackles, including two for loss, plus a sack, and he would have had a second sack if he hadn’t hit Jay Cutler in the head in the process.
“I was in great position to make a lot of plays tonight, and I think that’s ultimately the reason why to make a few changes,” Matthews said. “I’ve always taken pride in (doing) whatever they ask me to do.”
Matthews said it’d be “premature” to call this a permanent switch, but he wasn’t complaining about the new duty. He considered it an effort on the part of defensive coordinator Dom Capers to get the team’s best defenders on the field as much as possible. With Matthews at inside linebacker, Julius Peppers and Nick Perry were the primary outside rushers on early downs.
“That was probably the best fit, to line up in the middle and have at it,” Matthews said.
The Bears certainly didn’t gash the Packers in the run game the way they did in the teams’ first meeting this season, but they didn’t exactly challenge the Packers with the run either. Cutler dropped back to pass on 14 of Chicago’s first 18 snaps over the Bears’ opening four possessions, and by the time Matt Forte ran for 13 yards on first down with 12 minutes left in the second quarter, it was already 28-0.
Chicago finished with just 55 yards rushing, and Matthews had a hand in that. Most notably, he looped around from the inside backer spot to cut off receiver Chris Williams the moment he got the handoff on a reverse, dropping him for an 8-yard loss. Before that, he had two tackles of Forte at or near the line of scrimmage.
“If he can keep playing like that, we’ll be in good shape,” Mike Neal said. “Dom does a good job of utilizing his personnel, and we have to keep doing that.”
Hawk felt he and Matthews worked well together, saying they have constantly communicated over the years even when not lined up side by side. Hawk referred to the game plan for Matthews as the “most diverse” he’s seen so far.
“With how well it worked tonight, I’m sure they want to do it again, it’s just how much,” Hawk said.
With Matthews as the centerpiece, the Packers defense got back to its big-play ways, with four sacks and three turnovers.
Safety Micah Hyde started it with an interception of Cutler on Chicago’s second possession. Peppers had a strip-sack and recovered the fumble himself. Late in the game, cornerback Casey Hayward intercepted a Cutler pass that deflected off an offensive lineman’s helmet and returned it 82 yards for a score.
Hyde’s pick was the first of the second-year pro’s career and it’s worth noting it came while covering Bears tight end Martellus Bennett, who had a career day against the Packers six weeks ago with nine catches for 134 yards.
The first turnover set up the Packers’ second touchdown just over 11 minutes into the game.
“I was waiting patiently, a year and a half into it,” Hyde said of his first one. “I should have had one last time against the Bears, but Coach didn’t challenge it for me. So finally I got it, and it feels good.”
Games like this help everyone feel good, but two weeks after a defensive meltdown in New Orleans, the Packers were being realists, too.
“I’m not here to kick them while they’re down,” Peppers said of his former team. “They’re not playing well, and that’s obvious.”
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