Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews made his first NFL start on Sunday against the Detroit Lions, and boy, what a start it was.
Matthews, the Packers second first-round pick this season, played every snap, contributed two sacks and five tackles, including one for a loss. We’ve gone over and over the Packers shortcomings at linebacker this season, and Clay Matthews is just what the Packers linebacking corp needed – a playmaker.
Matthews emergence shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. He showed flashes of his ability in the Packers loss to the Vikings. Matthews played on one of the best defenses college football has seen this decade at USC, where he demonstrated an unrivaled work ethic. On Sunday, he displayed the cool demeanor you’d expect of a veteran.
“That’s what they brought me in here for, to bring a different aspect to this team,” Matthews said. “They said they were going to give me a shot, so I had to make the most of my opportunity.”
Matthews didn’t just make the most of his opportunity, he was a shot in the arm to a stagnant defense. And while we are quick to point out all of the Packers flaws, most of those are on offense. The Packers defense played admirably against the Lions on Sunday, and Matthews was a big part of that.
There’s no need to build Matthews up as a savior – this is what first-round picks are supposed to do, after all – but his insertion into the starting lineup could realistically be a turning point for the Packers defense. In Matthews, the Packers have the playmaker on the outside they didn’t have with Brady Poppinga as a starter. Matthews is also superior in coverage to Poppinga – the reason he is a three-down player.
On the other side, the Packers are putting Aaron Kampman back in his customary three-point stance for several plays a game. Kampman reacted with a sack and five quarterback hits on Sunday.
On the inside, Nick Barnett finally looks comfortable on his surgically-repaired knee and is starting to make plays like the Nick Barnett of 2007.
If the Packers would take A.J. Hawk off the field permanently, you might be looking at the linebackers as the strength of a pretty solid defense.
Certainly, if things continue to progress in the current direction, you’ll be looking at the ball-hawking, quarterback pressuring defense that the 3-4 was supposed to bring to the Green Bay Packers.
And the catalyst for all of this may well be a kid named Clay Matthews.