The num­bers haven’t added up

Matthews, Perry: New roles hurt sack to­tals

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Sports - Ryan Wood

GREEN BAY – Eight games into his fi­nal au­di­tion be­fore be­com­ing a free agent next spring, the best thing that can be said about Clay Matthews this sea­son will be hard to val­u­ate on the open mar­ket.

Matthews has had a solid if un­spec­tac­u­lar sea­son. There have been some hum­bling mo­ments, none more so than when the Green Bay Pack­ers out­side line­backer by­passed an open-field tackle against San Fran­cisco 49ers re­ceiver Pierre Gar­con. Matthews looked ev­ery bit of 32 years old on that missed tackle.

But he hasn’t taken him­self out of plays as much as in the past, when his

propen­sity to chase sacks fre­quently would carry him out of po­si­tion and open run lanes.

“That’s just part of play­ing good team de­fense,” de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Pet­tine said.

Good team de­fense can win games. It doesn’t get a formerly pre­mier pass rusher Sacks equate to salary on the open mar­ket.

Matthews, who has played good team de­fense in re­cent weeks, hasn’t got­ten many sacks this sea­son.

What started as a frus­trat­ing fall be­cause of rough­ing-the-passer penal­ties in three con­sec­u­tive games — two of which were highly ques­tion­able, with one elim­i­nat­ing a sack — has mor­phed into some­thing sta­tis­ti­cally un­der­whelm­ing. Matthews has 2.5 sacks in eight games, on pace to match his ca­reer low. The only other time he had five sacks in a sea­son was 2016.

That sea­son, Matthews played only 12 games.

He’s had his health this sea­son, but the pass-rush pro­duc­tiv­ity re­mains lack­ing. Matthews hasn’t had eight sacks in a sea­son — much less dou­ble dig­its — since 2014. At 32, it would seem un­likely he ever will again, but Matthews said he be­lieves his pass-rush pro­duc­tion could be sim­i­lar to ear­lier in his ca­reer in a dif­fer­ent role.

“A hun­dred per­cent,” Matthews said. “If I’m rush­ing (as of­ten as) some of these guys around the league are rush­ing, yeah, my num­bers are up there. Ob­vi­ously, you want your num­bers to be higher, just for the grat­i­fi­ca­tion of know­ing these sacks are so revered. But at the same time, you have to look at the op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Matthews isn’t alone. Fel­low vet­eran out­side line­backer Nick Perry has only 1.5 sacks this sea­son and none since Septem­ber. Matthews and Perry count more than $22 mil­lion against the Pack­ers’ cap this sea­son.

To­gether, they’ve had as many sacks as Kyler Fack­rell. Three of Fack­rell’s sacks came in the same game against Buf­falo Bills rookie quar­ter­back Josh Allen.

“I’m not alarmed with it,” Matthews said. “I just think you have to look at how we’re be­ing used out there. Be­cause I think if you look at statis­tics, if you look at all the out­side lineback­ers, you’d say, ‘Oh, they’re down this year.’ But the re­al­ity is, as far as in the pass­rush­ing sit­u­a­tions, we’re be­ing asked to do some dif­fer­ent things.

“Whether that’s drop­ping in cov­er­age, set some other guys up, DBs com­ing, in­side lineback­ers drop­ping into cov­er­age. I mean, those op­por­tu­ni­ties are fewer as far as four-man pass rush, and geared more to­ward cre­at­ing con­fu­sion with the op­pos­ing of­fense.”

The op­er­a­tive phi­los­o­phy is both edge de­fend­ers were asked to rush the passer at a much higher vol­ume un­der for­mer de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dom Capers. Matthews pointed to the two times the Pack­ers sacked New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots quar­ter­back Tom Brady last week­end. On both, Matthews backpedaled at the snap, drop­ping into cov­er­age in­stead of rush­ing Brady.

A week ear­lier, Matthews had one sack and two quar­ter­back hits against Los An­ge­les Rams quar­ter­back Jared Goff.

Perry also sug­gested his role now is more di­verse than in the past, specif­i­cally say­ing he drops into cov­er­age more in Pet­tine’s scheme than ever un­der Capers.

“Have you looked at it as a team, where we’re at as sacks?” Perry re­sponded when asked if he’s alarmed with his sack to­tal. “Be­cause we are a dif­fer­ent team. Things are a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. We do have a lot of sacks on the stat sheet. So we do a lot of pres­sure things, free­ing up guys. So I’m not alarmed.”

The Pack­ers rank sixth in the NFL with 25 sacks, sur­pris­ing given their start­ing edge rush­ers have com­bined for only four. Pre­dictably, the strength of their pass rush has been the in­te­rior. De­fen­sive tackle Kenny Clark has be­come what coach Mike McCarthy called “a Pro Bowl player” this fall. His four sacks are tied with in­side line­backer Blake Martinez and Fack­rell for most on the team.

Matthews said his role now has much to do with dis­guis­ing where the Pack­ers are bring­ing pres­sure. It’s no won­der, then, that when asked whether the Pack­ers need more sacks from their high­est-paid pass rusher, Pet­tine quickly said no.

“For all those guys,” Pet­tine said, “it’s did they do their job? You don’t look for — be­cause I think when you tell a guy some­thing like that, and they start to chase it, some­times it af­fects the in­tegrity of the de­fense. If it’s a run­ning play, and you have a guy who’s run­ning up the field to go chase a sack, and the ball ends up cut­ting back be­hind him, he didn’t do his job. So it’s a func­tion of them do­ing their jobs, and other teams are do­ing a good job against those guys.

“But we never look for, we need this num­ber of sacks out of a cer­tain player.”

Still, sacks are im­por­tant. Short of turnovers, they’re the best neg­a­tive play a de­fense can in­flict on op­pos­ing of­fenses. If good team de­fense can win games, edge rush­ers who can sack the quar­ter­back have led teams to cham­pi­onships.

If Matthews still had dou­ble-digit sack abil­ity, he pre­sum­ably would be used still as a pre­mier pass rusher. No drop­ping into cov­er­age with a high fre­quency. Just get to the quar­ter­back. But per­haps his cur­rent role does him a fa­vor, high­light­ing the ver­sa­til­ity in his game.

Matthews won’t be paid like a pre­mier pass rusher next spring, but he has value as a jack-of-all-trades lineback­ers, es­pe­cially with his his­tory of play­ing off the ball.

“There’s so many vari­ables af­ter this year,” Matthews said, “as far as what the fu­ture holds. So I don’t know. I re­ally have no idea, but I think it does add some type of value to know that I’ve shown it for two and a half years.

“I’ve showed that I can ex­cel at it play­ing in space, and I’ve al­ways en­joyed play­ing in space and hav­ing some free­dom to move around and be an ath­lete, and at the same time rush the passer. I think it pro­vides a dy­namic that, ob­vi­ously I don’t want to talk about the fu­ture here, but at the same time that a team can re­ally take ad­van­tage of that.

“What­ever the role is, I’d like to be in­volved in mak­ing plays. What­ever that means.”

JIM MATTHEWS / USA TO­DAY NET­WORK-WIS­CON­SIN

Green Bay Pack­ers line­backer Clay Matthews has just 2.5 sacks in eight games this sea­son.

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