If he was not a front-runner before Monday night’s game against the Ravens, Clay Matthews seems to have officially thrown his hat into the ring for defensive rookie of the year. He finished the game with a career-high six tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, a tackle for a loss, and a pass defended as the Packers defense held the Ravens to just 185 total yards.
Many questioned Ted Thompson when he traded three Day One draft picks in order to get back in the first round to select Matthews, but he has been well worth the cost of the draft picks. Thompson passed on the likes of running back Beanie Wells and outside linebackers Everette Brown and Clint Sintim to arrive at Matthews.
The selection seemed like a head-scratcher at the time due to the higher-ranked players on the board at the time, but even Thompson admitted that had B.J. Raji not been available when the Packers picked ninth, Matthews was a possibility.
As is the case with most Ted Thompson moves, we have gone from scratching our heads to clapping our hands and screaming our lungs out as we watch Matthews fly all over the football field.
A hamstring injury in training camp that seemed to last forever put Matthews behind the eight ball in terms of learning the new 3-4 defensive scheme under Dom Capers. He appeared in just one preseason game and took some time to get his conditioning back, registering just four tackles in his first three games (with a sack).
Matthews’ first glimpse of greatness came on Monday Night Football against the Vikings in which Matthews, a reserve at the time, pursued towards running back Adrian Peterson, stripped him of the ball, and returned it 42 yards for a score. It was that kind of play-making ability that has set Matthews off over the last ten weeks.
While his seven sacks are a great measure to show his ability to get to the quarterback, those numbers almost don’t do him justice. Coming off the right end, Matthews has a non-stop motor off the edge and uses his pure athleticism to wreak havoc in the pocket.
Listed at 250 pounds, the slightly undersized Matthews has made up for his lack of size in other areas. His pass coverage has been excellent for the majority of the year and he has registered six pass break-ups, which ranks him second behind Johnny Jolly for a non-defensive back.
Even past the stats, Matthews has meant so much for a defense that had a big question mark next to them entering the season. With a new defense being implemented and veterans switching positions and roles, many wondered if a team that had been set up for a 4-3 defense could make the switch to a 3-4 in the matter of one off-season.
A big reason why they were able to has been the presence of Matthews. Had it not been for the USC standout, the Packers would probably be starting Brady Poppinga at outside linebacker, a thought that would make most Packers fans sick.
When Aaron Kampman and Al Harris both went down with season-ending knee injuries in the span of two quarters, many wrote off the Packers. Two veterans both playing at a high level for a defense with questionable depth was basically a death sentence. The post-injury assignments included Matthews taking over Kampman’s role at getting to the quarterback. In the two games since Kampman has been gone, Matthews has racked up three sacks and provided constant pressure every time he rushes.
Matthews’ former teammate Brian Cushing has put together a fantastic year for the Texans and is also a leading candidate for the DROY award. However, the Texans rank 16th in total defense and 22nd against the run, and Cushing also has the pleasure of playing behind Mario Williams and alongside Demeco Ryans.
There is much more freedom in the 4-3 defense that Houston runs for Cushing to make plays, while Matthews’ best plays for the Packers are when Nick Collins intercepts a pass because a certain outside linebacker was breathing down the quarterback’s neck. Other than the middle linebackers, stats are more spread out in the team-oriented 3-4 defense, something Matthews should not be penalized for. Even so, stats are not everything and one can not look over the importance Matthews has played in the Packers defense this season.
Matthews has been one of the most productive players on the first-ranked defense in the league. He is a Pro Bowler in the making and, as long as he is in the 3-4, should have a very productive career. While his ticket to Hawaii might be punched one day, he will have to settle for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2009.