On one snap, he’s running down the seam in coverage against Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. On another, he’s shedding a block and exploding into the backfield to bury quarterback Jon Kitna for a sack. On another, he’s bursting into the backfield to stone running back Marion Barber for a 3-yard loss on third-and-1. And on one more, he’s snagging a deflected pass out of the air and racing untouched 62 yards for a touchdown.
All in a night’s work for the second-year pro, apparently.
“He’s doing exactly what we need him to do in this defense,” said Kevin Greene, Matthews’ position coach and one of the best outside linebackers ever to play in the 3-4.
“The outside ‘backers in this defense have to be dominant players. They need to be game-changing kind of guys, and he’s that kind of guy.”
The question was asked after the season’s first two games, and it was clearly premature to ask it at the time. Is Matthews on his way to earning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, just like teammates Charles Woodson did last season?
Matthews had posted back-to-back three-sack games to open the year, but it was just as silly then to ask about breaking the single-season record for sacks of 22½, as it was to ask about any year-end awards.
But after last week, it’s no longer too early nor silly. Matthews’ impact on the Packers’ defense, and on every game he plays, is undeniable. Offenses must scheme to try to stop him, yet he’s still a factor every week. He became a marked man after those consecutive three-sack games, and yet in the six games he’s played since (he missed one with a hamstring injury), he still has racked up 4½ more sacks to lead the league with 10½.
So can he win Defensive Player of the Year? There’s still plenty of football to be played, but here’s a look at all the factors working in Matthews’ favor:
A complete player. The sack numbers jump out, of course, but Matthews is no slouch against the run either. He helped stack up Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick on a fourth-and-1 quarterback draw to win the season opener, and the tackle of Barber last week also showed how strong a run defender he is.
On third-and-1 from the Dallas 48-yard line in the second quarter, the Cowboys line up in a jumbo, short-yardage set with multiple tight ends and no wide receivers. Matthews is lined up on the left side of the defense, just inside Witten’s left shoulder, and at the snap he fires unblocked through the gap between Witten and the interior blocker and drills Barber before he knows what hit him.
“He almost took the handoff,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “That was a big-time play.”
It was also another example of what Greene referred to as Matthews’ improved study habits from his rookie season.
“He does a good job of studying film,” Greene said. “He does a good job of feeling the offense, the set of the offensive line, whether they’re sitting back on their haunches when it’s going to be a pass, or is everything really tight with them forward on their hands, when it’s a run. There’s a lot of things out there you can read as a player to give you a pre-snap read of what the play possibly could be.
“Then, you just trust your gut, trust your stomach, trust your instincts and play to it. Most times you’re correct, and this time he was correct. Everything pointed to it being a fullback belly to Barber, and he went to make a play, and he did.”
The numbers and in-season awards. Matthews’ 10½ sacks are two more than any other player in the league right now (Miami’s Cameron Wake has 8½), though all the other leaders will play their teams’ ninth games this week while the Packers finally have their bye. His 67½ sack yards also lead the league.
The interception return for a touchdown against the Cowboys got Matthews on the board in a couple of other statistical categories, too, which only helps to prove all-around impact. Woodson last year showed up in every impact category, with nine interceptions, three touchdowns, four forced fumbles, one recovery and two sacks. One thing Matthews could use is more in the fumble categories. Surprisingly, for as ferocious as some of Matthews’ hits on quarterbacks can be, he has only forced one fumble so far.
Matthews also has already won an NFC Defensive Player of the Month award (for September) and two NFC Defensive Player of the Week awards (Weeks 2 and 9). Plus, he's been named to the midseason All-Pro teams of Sports Illustrated and Pro Football Weekly, and he's currently on SI.com national writer Peter King's top-five list for league MVP, so his contributions clearly are standing out. Woodson won the Player of the Month award three times last year, an unprecedented achievement for a defensive player.
Capers on his side. When he has a player who’s a true difference-maker, Capers comes up with all kinds of ways to use him, and this year has been no different. After rushing almost exclusively from the right side last season, Matthews has lined up anywhere and everywhere along the defensive front this season, rushing off either edge or up the middle.
Capers has coached three previous Defensive Player of the Year award winners – cornerback Rod Woodson with Pittsburgh in 1993, defensive end Jason Taylor with Miami in 2006, and Woodson last year – so he knows how to maximize a dominant player’s impact.
“That makes you look a lot smarter, I’ll tell you that,” Capers said of playing the X’s and O’s game with those kinds of players. “When you’ve got guys like (number) 52 (Matthews) and 21 (Woodson) that get mentioned, we know the kind of year 21 had last year doesn’t come around very often, and 52 is having a great year this year. So the things you draw up have a tendency to work a lot better when you have guys like that out there doing them.”
Team success (and occasional failure). For any of the league’s major awards, it helps to be on a winning team, and the Packers have won three straight and sit atop the NFC North at 6-3.
In addition, it’s been obvious the Packers aren’t the same defense when Matthews doesn’t play. He left the Washington game in Week 5 late in the third quarter with hamstring trouble, and the Packers went on to blow a 13-3 lead in the final period and lose in overtime.
He missed the game the following week vs. Miami, and the Packers lost in overtime again, failing to register a single sack on Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne’s 39 pass attempts. That’s the only game this season the Packers, who lead the league in sacks with 28, failed to get one.
So in the games Matthews has played from start to finish, the Packers are 6-1 with a pass rush among the league’s most consistent and dangerous.
So will all that be enough to win the league’s top defensive honor? As noted, the season is barely half over, so a lot can happen between now and the end of the year.
Also, there are a couple of things potentially working against Matthews. For one, his health.
His balky hamstring has given him trouble twice this season – once in training camp and again in Week 5 – and he barely practiced during the week leading into the Dallas game because of a shin injury. The lack of practice certainly didn’t affect his performance that night, and hopefully the bye week will help Matthews heal up, but there are no guarantees in this department.
There’s also the Packers’ overall defensive ranking, which is just 14th right now in yards allowed. Last year when Woodson won the award, Green Bay ranked second. But by allowing just seven points in the past two games combined, the Packers have risen to No. 2 in the league in scoring defense, and they remain among the league leaders in turnovers.
One final issue is whether the Associated Press voters would hesitate in any way to award a different player from the same team two years in a row. History would indicate that’s not a factor. In the 2003-04 seasons, Baltimore’s Ray Lewis and Ed Reed won in consecutive years, as did Buffalo’s Bryce Paup and Bruce Smith in 1995-96.
It’s all fun, games and speculation when it’s just mid-November, but the serious discussions about the award will be starting soon enough. Like Woodson last year, Matthews has said many times that all he cares about is winning, and with how much he means to that equation, there’s no reason to change course.
“I just know he’s being productive, and he needs to keep that going,” Greene said. “We’re winning games and his productivity is right where it needs to be in this defense. We just need to keep doing what we’re doing, and all that other stuff is going to take care of itself.”