GREEN BAY — Clay Matthews said all week that he was feeling more like himself after being largely limited over the past month with the shoulder injury he sustained in Philadelphia.
It showed when the Packers’ six-time Pro Bowl linebacker took the field on Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings.
After a full week of practice, Matthews had one of his best games of the season with three tackles, a strip-sack, three QB hits and two pass deflections in the Packers’ 38-25 win at Lambeau Field.
Matthews’ strip-sack of Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford with a minute left in the first half came at a critical time. It not only stopped Minnesota’s drive but also put the ball back into the hands of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers drove the offense 54 yards on five plays in 30 seconds, capping the scoring drive with a 6-yard touchdown scramble to take a commanding 28-13 lead at halftime.
It was one of two takeaways the defense generated in the first half that Rodgers and the offense turned into touchdowns.
“Obviously every week the shoulder gets a little stronger, gets a little better and I felt I was able to take more advantage of those rush opportunities,” Matthews said. “Fortunately, I had a sack-caused fumble that led to some points. I think at halftime ultimately the difference was we had two turnovers that turned into points.”
Matthews separated his shoulder on a hit from former teammate Allen Barbre in the Packers’ 27-13 win over the Eagles on Nov. 28. He played through the injury the past three games but was limited to a third-down rushing role.
He started Saturday’s game in the dime defense before defensive coordinator Dom Capers began integrating him more into early-down situations.
The Bradford sack came on second-and-1 with the Vikings trying to narrow the Packers’ eight-point lead at the time. With Bradford’s quick release, Matthews initially worried the quarterback might get the ball out, but he didn’t.
After Matthews stripped the ball free, defensive tackle Mike Daniels jumped on it to secure the turnover. The Packers have generated 12 takeaways in the last three games, including the defense’s recovery of a Minnesota botched snap in the second quarter.
“It was good for him to get back out there and make plays,” linebacker Julius Peppers said. “I think it gave him confidence to have those plays early. We’ll look for that to carry over and I think it gave a shot to the whole team.”
While the strip-sack was a game-changing play, Matthews also batted down two Bradford passes at the line of scrimmage in third-down situations, forced a holding call, and generated a handful of other incompletions off hits and pressure.
As a defense, the Packers sacked Bradford four times with eight hits. Linebacker Nick Perry, who had two sacks to get to 10 on the season, credited the increased defensive pressure to a more active Matthews.
“He creates mismatches,” said Perry, who returned after missing two games with a hand injury. “They have to account for him as well as everybody else on the field. He’s just that much better when he’s fully healthy.”
In addition to the recent shoulder injury, Matthews battled a hamstring issue earlier this season that sidelined him for four games. However, he’s feeling good right now and didn’t feel the game set him back at all with his shoulder.
“I felt like naturally, once I was able to start contributing in the run game as well as the pass game that those reps would come along,” Matthews said. “I felt strong and comfortable making tackles. It still needs to get better, no doubt about it, but I’m encouraged by the progress.”
When asked about Matthews playing through the shoulder injury earlier this week, his position coach, Winston Moss, said the Pro Bowl linebacker always gives you a chance at a big play.
Those plays came on Saturday. Now, Matthews hopes to keep it going against Detroit next Sunday with the NFC North title showdown on the horizon.
“We’ve had a tendency here the last several years to really come up strong late in the year,” Matthews said. “This year we have a nice five-game run going with a big game next weekend.
“Defense, we’re finally taking the ball away and creating turnovers. The offense is really clicking. We look like the Packers, who we are who we thought we were, or whatever. We feel good about where we’re at but we still have one more.”
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