Since the time he entered the league in 2009, Clay Matthews has been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL and one of the Green Bay Packers’ best defenders.
Matthews’ primary position has always been outside linebacker, but the Packers were forced to give him significant time at inside linebacker last season. Rather than suffer a decrease in production due to inexperience at the position, Matthews responded by giving an immediate boost to a struggling linebacker corps.
He began playing inside during Week 9, and took a significant portion of snaps there for the rest of the year. Before the switch, the Packers’ run defense was dead last in the NFL. By the end of the year, aided drastically by Matthews’ presence, Green Bay’s run defense rose to 23rd in the league.
Overall, Matthews simply showed that he can do more than just rush the quarterback. He proved that he is a versatile defender who can adequately cover and stop the run from the middle of the field.
The Packers’ biggest need in the offseason was to address the inside linebacker position. While Matthews did a more than sufficient job, Green Bay would still prefer to keep him on the outside, where he is one of the best in the league.
But the Packers did not draft a linebacker until the fourth round, and Matthews has been getting reps in on the inside during practices as well. It appears that Green Bay is prepping Matthews to once again see a significant number of snaps at inside linebacker this year.
However, this is not going to be a problem for Matthews; no matter where he plays on the field, he is poised to have a huge season in 2015.
Matthews’ production did not decrease last year once he began spending time on the inside. He switched at the exact middle of the season, but he statistically was much better in the back half of the year. He recorded 42 of his 61 tackles after he started playing inside linebacker.
That increase in tackles could have been attributed to being more involved with the running game. But his pass rush also improved once he started spending time inside. Of his 11 sacks, 8.5 of them came in games where he played snaps at inside linebacker.
The Packers know that Matthews’ strength is rushing the quarterback, and they made sure to give him ample opportunities to do so. Matthews was given more freedom on the defense and had more chances to make plays in the running game.
Assuming Matthews once again sees a significant amount of playing time at inside linebacker, it can be expected that he will perform even better in that role in 2015. He played well last season with no past experience at the position. Green Bay had just one extra week because of the bye to adjust Matthews to playing a new role.
Heading into the 2015 season, Matthews will have had an entire offseason to learn the position better. He will have a chance to pick up the nuances and other factors that make inside linebacker different. This added practice time and experience will allow Matthews to be even more effective inside than he was last season.
Last season showed that there is also no reason to expect that his sack totals drop either. Just because he will get snaps at inside linebacker does not mean that he will not get opportunities for sacks. On obvious passing downs, Matthews will almost certainly go to his more natural position and rush the quarterback.
Matthews is still not the Packers’ preferred option to be playing inside linebacker. Green Bay hopes that one of the other linebackers on the roster, such as Carl Bradford or Jake Ryan, can develop into a starting-caliber player.
But until a more permanent option is found, the Packers can rest assured that Clay Matthews can fix Green Bay’s biggest need. He will play both inside and outside linebacker over the course of the year, but in the long run it really won’t matter. No matter where Matthews lines up on the field, he is poised to have another big year in 2015.——————
Sean Blashe is a Packers fan who grew up in Bears territory and is currently a journalism and history major at Marquette University. Sean is a writer with PackersTalk.com and you can follow him on twitter at @SeanBlashe .