Clay Matthews: Strength, Power and Versatility

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Clay Matthews always reminds me of those wrestling figures that come in the little plastic cases.

Although he had 3.5 sacks during the previous three playoff games the Green Bay Packers played that post-season, the play that would define the early part of Clay Matthews’ career would come on a running play in Super Bowl XLV.

It was the first play of the fourth quarter. The Pittsburgh Steelers were losing by four points, facing a second and two on the Packers’ 33 yard line. A conservative call was supposed to allow Rashard Mendenhall to convert the first down running over right tackle, but Clay Matthews burst into the backfield to force a fumble that would ultimately put the Packer son their way to Super Bowl glory.

Even though it was the biggest play of Matthews’ career, it wasn’t the type of play that he had built it upon.

Matthews had consistently made plays in the backfield throughout his two year career, but most of those plays were sacks on the quarterback. As an edge-rusher, he had 23.5 sacks during his first two seasons in the league. After playing his first season with Aaron Kampman, when he dramatically outperformed the veteran, Matthews would take over the primary pass-rusher role before that season begun.

As the primary pass rusher in 2010, Matthews had no issues. He finished the regular season with 13.5 sacks before adding 3.5 more in the playoffs. Matthews was proving himself as the superstar he promised to be when the Packers took him with the 26th overall pick of the 2009 draft. Yet, despite that strong year, Matthews would suffer a serious Super Bowl hangover. He had just six sacks during the 2011 season.

Nobody really questioned Matthews’ individual output. It was easy to give him a pass because he was playing on a front seven that desperately needed retooling. When Ted Thompson invested in the front during the 2012 NFL draft, the primary motivation appeared to be to take the pressure off of Matthews. Those picks appeared to do what was expected, but their top two picks, Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy, played less than 700 snaps combined even including the playoffs.

Regardless of the impact of the rookies, Matthews’ production returned to the levels they expected of him in 2012. But if the rookies weren’t the reason, what was?

Layout of the Process

Every sack was considered and examined under this set of criteria:

  • Where and how the defender lined up.
  • Whether the player beat a blocker or not.
  • The quality and position of those blockers was also noted.
  • Whether the player was double-teamed or not.
  • Whether the player was involved in a stunt with a teammate or not and the effects of that stunt.
  • The primary reason for the sack.
  • The game situation ie: time, quarter, score, down and distance.
  • How the player beat attempted blocks.
  • Whether the player attacked the football or settled for the tackle on the quarterback’s body.
  • How long it took the player to get to the quarterback.
  • How many yards each sack pushed the offense back by.
  • Where the player broke into the backfield.
  • Where the player tackled the quarterback.

Matthews’ Overall Results

Despite missing four starts during the regular season, Matthews still had the fourth most snaps of anyone on the Packers’ defense. Only defensive backs Morgan Burnett and Tramon Williams had significantly more also, because fellow linebacker Erik Walden finished the year with just five more snaps in total. Matthews had 877 snaps on the field and he rushed the passer on 439 of those.

Matthews got to the quarterback 17 times all season on those 439 sacks, giving him a sack percentage of 3.87. That is second only to Von Miller, who is the only player to eclipse the 4 percent mark in this series so far.

All but two of Matthews’ sacks came when he was lined up in the position of a right defensive end in the stance of a linebacker. Against the Chicago Bears he sacked the quarterback from a right defensive tackle position in the stance of a linebacker, while he had one sack against the Tennessee Titans from an inside linebacker position when he blitzed late after initially dropping into coverage.

Matthews had three sacks after stunts all season, with two of those giving him a free route to the quarterback after blown assignments. Only once all season did he beat a double-team, against the Chicago Bears when he was able to fend off J’Marcus Webb so that he could concentrate on beating running-back Michael Bush.

Four sacks came when his team was playing from behind, while nine more came when they were playing with a lead. When the game was tied or within one score either way, Matthews had 10 sacks. The breakdown of Matthews’ sacks by quarter is very consistent, with four each coming in second, third and fourth quarters and five coming in first quarters. Four of Matthews’ first quarter sacks came less than five minutes into the game.

Not once did Matthews penetrate the pocket to the right-side of the center. Every single time he got through he went past either side of the left guard or left tackle. Twelve of his sacks went passed left tackles, eight of those going outside and four inside. The remaining five went past the left guard, with four of those going between the left guard and the center and just one going between the left guard and the left tackle.

Four sacks finished outside of the pocket, but only one of those saw him beat a blocker.

Incredibly, Matthews had only three sacks on third down all season long and one more on fourth down. The majority of his sacks came on second down as he had only five on first down also. Matthews had eight second down sacks, with an average of 12 yards from the line of scrimmage to the first down marker per sack. In total, 11 of his sacks came when the line of scrimmage was at least 10 yards from the first down marker.

Method Analysis

Timestamp Players Beat Speed Bull Combination Move
SF, Q1 13:36 Joe Staley No Yes No No
SF, Q3 03:30 Joe Staley No No No Swim
SF, Q4 04:01 Joe Staley No No No Swim
CHI, Q1 04:28 Chris Spencer No No No Shed
CHI, Q2 09:15 J’Marcus Webb No No No Swim
CHI, Q4 08:04 J’Marcus Webb No No No Spin
CHI, Q4 03:50 Michael Bush No No No Shed
NO, Q3 01:29 None No No No No
IND, Q2 10:51 Anthony Castonzo No No Bull to Speed No
STL, Q3 07:56 Joe Barksdale Yes No No No
CHI, Q2 15:00 James Brown No No No Shed
CHI, Q4 09:05 None No No No No
TEN, Q1 14:09 None No No No No
MIN, Q1 09:14 None No No No No
MIN, Q2 13:50 None No No No No
MIN, Q3 04:08 Matt Kalil Yes No No No
SF, Q1 10:37 Joe Staley No No No Inside Step

Matthews is a talented pass-rusher who brings a variety to his game. He is very physically gifted with the ability to use his strength for sacks or his speed, while he has the technician to use his hands and the body control to use everything together to create a lane into the backfield.

At 26 years of age(he has turned 27 since the end of last season), he is already a refined pass-rusher with the potential to continue to dominate players in this league.

He has all the physical attributes, but he doesn’t rely on any of them to consistently beat tackles. At least, he doesn’t solely rely on any of them. Matthews most often beat offensive linemen with his swim move or by shedding off their block attempts. Obviously his strength and speed are vital for the execution of these moves.

Much like JJ Watt’s, Matthews’ swim move is incredible:

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Because of his speed in space and the power, timing and placement of his arms, Matthews’ is able to knock offensive linemen off balance with great ease. Here, J’Marcus Webb, who isn’t one of the best left tackles in the NFL but is very athletic, goes down as soon as Matthews’ fist connects with his shoulder. No matter how poor a player Webb may be, to do that to such a big, athletic man, still requires some significant strength on Matthews’ part.

Of course, while beating Webb is nothing to really celebrate about, Matthews was able to beat Joe Staley twice with swim moves. Staley is definitely a more reputable NFL offensive lineman and a worthy franchise left tackle.

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Whereas against Webb Matthews was able to use his speed and timing in space, against Staley he immediately engaged with the tackle from the snap. Staley is a very big, strong offensive tackle, but Matthews is able to use his upper body strength and base to hold him off before getting past him.

A weaker pass-rusher would not have been able to execute this move, because he would never have been able to hold his footing in tight against Staley.

It was that upper-body strength and leg drive that allowed him to shed block attempts so often during the season also.

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When the Bears motion a wide receiver infield from a wide right position, Matthews shifts from a right outside linebacker position to that more of a right defensive tackle position. He is right over the gap between the left guard and left tackle and motioning as if he is looking to jump inside before the snap.

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Matthews looks to attack the inside shoulder of the left guard at the snap, but the guard hits him so that he is knocked backwards and off of his feet. This doesn’t deter Matthews however, as he simply plants his backfoot and re-establishes the angle of his body towards the gap between the left guard and the center. With his leg power and upper body strength, he holds off the attempted block and keeps pushing his way through into the backfield.

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His effort and power allows him to get right in the face of Jay Cutler before dragging him to the ground.

There are many very good speed rushers in the NFL who can make a living by coming off the edge. However, those edge-rushers who have the speed to go outside as well as the body-shape, strength and power to beat interior offensive linemen for sacks are in the minority. Matthews may be one of the most versatile pass-rushers in the NFL.

We already know that he can produce from either outside linebacker spot, but with this part of aspect of his arsenal on show, he becomes a true defensive weapon that any defensive coordinator would love to move around the field. In today’s NFL of more fluid, amoeba defenses to counter such varied passing attacks, this ability from Matthews could be invaluable in the right hands.

And even with Dom Capers supposedly being the wrong hands, he still had more sacks than games played last year.

As with every pass rusher, it’s important to note who he beat also:

Players Beat Snaps Sacks Allowed PFF Grade*
Joe Staley 618 9 18.5
Chris Spencer 186 3 -9.2
J’Marcus Webb 595 7 1.4
Michael Bush 57 1 -1.8
Anthony Castonzo 814 10 -4.5
Joe Barksdale 77 2 -1.7
James Brown 120 2 -2.7
Matt Kalil 620 3 15
Total 3087 37 15
Average 385.875 4.63 1.88

*PFF Grade is for pass blocking only.
All Statistics courtesy of  PFF

Matthews only really beat two tackles of any note. Joe Staley dreaded lining up across from him as Matthews beat him four times in two games, while Matt Kalil also gave up one sack to him in the playoffs. Matthews was held without a sack four times last season, but even in those games he was still pressuring the quarterback for the most part.

It helps his case that three of those games came against the better left tackles in the NFL, Russell Okung, Duane Brown and Eugene Monroe. In the other he only played half the snaps because of injury.

It’s impossible to blame Matthews for only beating what was put in front of him. His numbers were somewhat bloated with five unblocked sacks, but that should be countered with the fact that he missed a large portion of the season. Had he been healthy for 16 games, he could have been up there in the production charts with the best of the best.

Timestamp Players Beat Attacks Football Time Elapsed Yards
SF, Q1 13:36 Joe Staley No 2.7 5
SF, Q3 03:30 Joe Staley No 2.9 5
SF, Q4 04:01 Joe Staley Yes 3.2 7
CHI, Q1 04:28 Chris Spencer No 3.4 10
CHI, Q2 09:15 J’Marcus Webb Yes 3.0 7
CHI, Q4 08:04 J’Marcus Webb No 4.7 7
CHI, Q4 03:50 Michael Bush No 3.7 10
NO, Q3 01:29 None No 2.4 10
IND, Q2 10:51 Anthony Castonzo Yes 2.9 8
STL, Q3 07:56 Joe Barksdale No 4.3 9
CHI, Q2 15:00 James Brown No 3.6 7
CHI, Q4 09:05 None No 2.6 7
TEN, Q1 14:09 None No 4.1 0
MIN, Q1 09:14 None No 4.4 7
MIN, Q2 13:50 None No 4.4 9
MIN, Q3 04:08 Matt Kalil Yes 3.9 9
SF, Q1 10:37 Joe Staley No 4.2 7
Total 12 4 60.4 124
Averages .71 .24 3.56 7.29

It’s no surprise that he looked to attack the football as often as he could. With those massive arms and his outstanding energy, Matthews was very reckless going after the quarterback. Reckless in a good way of course.

He isn’t a speed rusher and the sacks he gained when he didn’t beat a block had the inverse effect on his average time that it took to sack the quarterback.

Verdict

Matthews was unfortunate to be injured at the wrong time last season. His production when healthy last year was phenomenal and his talent is obvious for all to see. He may never have the same levels of production and sustain them over a full 16 game season, but if the Packers can’t find a way to build a front seven around his talents then they don’t deserve to have a player who can break that record.

With a relatively young, emerging secondary, Matthews figures to get plenty of help moving forward. Now, if Nick Perry and the multiple new faces who have been added to the defensive line in recent years can establish themselves, they may take away some of his production, but they could maximise his performance.

It’s easy to double team Matthews right now if you’re the opposing offense. They don’t have enough threats around the field to punish you for doing so.

As an individual, Matthews has all the talent of the best players in the league at his position. What is he missing as a pass-rusher? Nothing that he can really improve on. You could argue consistency needs to be there, but for three out of his four seasons in the league he has been a very productive player.

If Matthews needs to improve in any area to stay on the level of the defensive player of the year candidates from last season, that area is definitively not pass-rushing.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf

3 thoughts on “Clay Matthews: Strength, Power and Versatility

  1. Great write up. As a Packers fan I loved seeing the Casey Hayward article before, and now this is cool as well. I enjoy all the articles, very well done and very informative. Can’t wait for the Rodgers article, I’m sure it will be amazing. Once you get around to the QBs that is lol. Us Packer fans are just in awe of having that guy as our QB. I would be interested in seeing just how good he stacks up to everyone else, maybe the green and gold tinted shades we are looking through have skewed our judgement. Anyways, all your articles are great and I really do enjoy the time and hard work you put into them. It’s great to get some inside knowledge of how responsibilities and lanes factor so much into the play of teams and individuals. Keep up the good work!

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