Last season, Matthews battled a hamstring injury throughout much of training camp that limited him to just one preseason game, and didn’t enter the starting lineup in the base defense until Week 6 of a season that saw him post a franchise rookie-record 10 sacks and earn a Pro Bowl bid. This year’s camp featured a re-aggravation of that injury during the annual Family Night scrimmage, forcing Matthews to miss all four preseason contests.
With just four days of practice this past week heading into Sunday’s game making up the bulk of his regular-season preparation, Matthews didn’t show any signs of rust as he led the defense with seven tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble, and made the biggest stop of the game to preserve the 27-20 victory.
“I was definitely tired out there, but I know what I am doing,” said Matthews, whose two-sack game was the fourth of his career. “I know what I am doing in the framework of the defense and I know what they expect of me and what they want me to do. It’s to create pressure, make tackles, and just be a wrecking-force on the front line. I try and do that and fortunately I was able to come away with a little bit of success today.
“I didn’t think I played my best ball. Obviously I had four weeks off and limited work, but at the same time I thought I did some good things out there. There are always ways to improve and that’s what I look to do.”
With the Packers holding a 27-10 lead after three quarters, backup quarterback Michael Vick led the Eagles on two scoring drives that trimmed Green Bay’s margin to seven points. After Philadelphia forced a punt with a little over four minutes remaining, the Eagles took over at their own 23. Vick picked up 25 yards on two carries on the first two plays of the series to quickly put the Eagles near midfield. Two plays later, Matthews brought down Vick on a 3-yard sack, his second of the afternoon, to put the Eagles in a third-and-13 situation.
Matthews, clearly winded after rarely coming off the field throughout the afternoon, went to the sideline for the next play, a 12-yard completion from Vick to wide receiver Jason Avant that set up a fourth-and-1 at the two-minute warning. Matthews was back on the field after the break, and fought off blocks by both tight end Brent Celek and running back LeSean McCoy to stop Vick for no gain on a quarterback sneak, squelching the comeback as the offense was then able to run out the clock.
“That’s what we study for,” Matthews said. “We had a high inclination that they were going to be running a quarterback sneak. We knew where we were filling, and fortunately a few guys won their one-on-one battles and we made a play to get off the field and win the game.”
The reason Vick was in the game was because of a play Matthews made earlier in the afternoon. On a third down midway through the second quarter, Matthews chased down a scrambling Kevin Kolb for just a 1-yard gain. Matthews stripped the ball from Kolb and it went out of bounds to force a Philadelphia punt, but the hit Matthews delivered knocked the Eagles’ first-year starter out of the game with a concussion, though he didn't leave the game for good until after halftime.
On the very next series, Matthews almost came away with his first career interception, dropping a Kolb pass intended for wide receiver DeSean Jackson near the Philadelphia 35 with a lot of running room in front of Matthews.
“The worst thing I did was drop a pick-six,” Matthews said. “Trust me, that won’t happen again. I would give up a few sacks for that.”
The sacks he posted on Sunday made Matthews the first Packer to register two of them in a season opener since a trio of players, Jim Flanigan and Vonnie Holliday (two each), and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia (three), accomplished the feat back on Sept. 9, 2001, against Detroit.
“He is a beast,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “He is one of those guys that is never going to give up on a play, and it is hard to block him if you try to block him with one guy. If you have got a guy that doesn’t have the speed of Michael Vick, he is going to hunt you down. He is a big part of this defense.
“We see it every day. He is a monster. He gives people fits.”
Despite the limited reps during training camp, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said he wasn’t surprised to see Matthews come out and play the way he did on Sunday, even with the second-year man also making the adjustment to the left side after working strictly on the right side as a rookie.
“I did (expect it),” Capers said. “Clay is Clay. He is a bright guy. He has good football instincts. He made some really big plays tonight, the biggest one being the fourth-and-1. He came down and he used up two blockers. You have heard me say before that big players influence the game with two, three or four plays a game that make a difference. I think he certainly did that tonight.
“Everybody was kind of concerned about him playing over on the left side. You have a guy like him, you have got to try to do with him like we do with Charles.”
Although he did spend the bulk of his time on the left side on Sunday, Capers moved Matthews around, having him line up on the right side periodically while also coming on blitzes up the middle. Just like lining up Woodson at cornerback or in the slot or as a safety, the defense has another player that can make his mark wherever he is coming from.
“You look at guys like Charles Woodson and they are always making an attempt to get the ball,” Matthews said. “There is a reason why they are a play-maker, and I like to think that I am.
“I don’t know how many sacks that I had, but I have got to think on a few of the hits on the quarterback and a few of the sacks, there were great cover skills. It was nothing special that I did, and a lot of it is will power. You want to get there. That is what d-line and pass rush is all about is who wants it more. I think I want to get to the quarterback a lot more than they want to keep me from getting there.”