GREEN BAY – Clay Matthews knew he had the sack, even if the statisticians didn’t see it that way in the immediate aftermath of the Packers’ 26-20 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers less than two weeks ago.
The six-time Pro Bowler, already with 2½ sacks on the day, also factored into a 3-yard takedown of Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston at a pivotal point in the game with a little more than a minute remaining.
While the sack initially was given solely to defensive tackle Kenny Clark, the NFL later credited Matthews with a share, giving the veteran linebacker his first three-sack game since Week 2 of the 2012 season.
“My game ball still says 2½, though,” said Matthews in a playful tone. “So I’m going to send it back in.”
All kidding aside, Matthews has enjoyed a surge in production at a critical time for the Packers. After tallying 3½ sacks in Green Bay’s first nine games, he now has five in his last three – which really is more like 2¼ considering he left after 13 defensive snaps with a groin injury against Baltimore.
While Matthews’ five sacks since Week 11 are tied for second-most in the NFL during that span, the ninth-year linebacker’s biggest play in Sunday’s 27-21 overtime win over Cleveland came in the form of a quarterback hit, making contact with the throwing arm of Browns QB DeShone Kizer. It led to a Josh Jones interception and gave the Packers’ offense the ball at the Cleveland 42 en route to the game-winning drive.
It was Matthews’ 17th quarterback hit of the season and sixth over the past two games.
“You saw him (Sunday), in the key times in the game,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Clay is always one of those guys, he plays 50 plays, two or three times he’s going to affect the game. He had a sack in the two-minute situation. Of course, the biggest play was in overtime. He tracked the quarterback down, had the quarterback hit and the ball goes up in the air, and the rest is history.”
Outside of that groin injury, which sidelined him the following week in Pittsburgh, Matthews has been one of Green Bay’s most active and available defenders this season. More Matthews has been important for a Packers pass rush with Nick Perry, Ahmad Brooks and rookie fourth-round pick Vince Biegel missing a combined 13 games.
Matthews’ 590 snaps, fourth on the Packers’ defense, already put him north of the 477 defensive snaps he took in 12 regular-season games last year after the separated shoulder he sustained in Philadelphia restricted him to mainly third-down situations during the final 1½ months of the season.
He’s felt the difference, particularly when it comes to physicality. Able to play on early downs, Matthews’ 37 tackles (seven for a loss) have him on pace for his most as an edge rusher since posting 50 in 2011.
“I felt good all year. I had some games where sacks didn’t come and I feel like I’m just doing what I’ve done all year,” said Matthews, who leads Green Bay’s defense with 7½ sacks. “I feel like this is one of the most consistent years I’ve ever played against the run and pass and everything.
“They say sacks come in bunches and fortunately through these last three games I’ve been able to get after the quarterback and hopefully that’s a good sign moving forward. I feel good. I feel healthy. I feel ready to rock.”
Wearing a No. 57 Browns jersey in honor of his father, Clay Jr., after Sunday’s overtime win, Matthews hopes his late-season rally is only the beginning for both himself and Green Bay’s pass rush, tied for 16th in sacks with 31.
Matthews knows the more pressure the defense generates against Cam Newton, Case Keenum and Matthew Stafford over the next three weeks, the better chance the Packers have at earning a ninth consecutive playoff berth.
“Got three more games. They’re all must-win,” said Matthews, who now sits on 80 career sacks. “Carolina obviously is ready for us, especially going down there. We have to play a lot better. Hopefully, that’s the case.
“Hopefully, we don’t have to take it five quarters and can actually pull off a victory early in the game. We’ll take it. We’re happy about it. Obviously, we’ll make the corrections and keep getting better.”