Charles Woodson spoke candidly last week about the Green Bay Packers' pass defense, acknowledging its weaknesses and making one specific suggestion for improvement. All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews is sitting at three sacks through eight games, and Woodson implored coaches to "find ways to get Clay to the quarterback." He added: "We can't continue to allow him to be stuck on a side and double-teamed every time he gets upfield."
So as the Packers prepared for Monday night's matchup against the Minnesota Vikings, it seemed fair to examine how the Packers have used Matthews this season. Are there, in fact, ways to elevate his sack totals to reduce pressure on Woodson and the rest of the Packers' secondary? It might not be a critical factor against the Vikings' run-oriented offense Monday night, but the issue rests atop a short list of questions the Packers must answer as they pursue a second consecutive Super Bowl championship.
According to numbers from ESPN Stats & Information, and by Matthews' own observation, Woodson has a strong point.
Matthews has lined up as the Packers' left outside linebacker, over the opponent's right tackle, on 95.6 percent of the snaps he's played this season. The chart provides the details, but suffice it to say, Matthews' pre-snap positioning has been more predictable than in recent seasons. As a result, Matthews said this week, he has "absolutely" faced more double teams in 2011.
"You're definitely seeing more help in regards to bringing guards over or tight ends or backs that are chipping," Matthews said. "It's pretty obvious, but at the same time, that's not an excuse. We have to continue to create pressure, whether it's me or one of the interior linemen or the other outside linebacker. We have to find ways to get to the quarterback and take pressure off of our DBs."
There are some football justifications for anchoring Matthews on the left side of the defense. He has proved adept against the run and in covering opposing tight ends, both of which are more likely to originate from that side of an opposing offense. Covering tight ends or running backs has separated Matthews from 20 percent of the pass plays he has been on the field for (72 of 360).
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers told reporters this week in Green Bay that "we try to be as creative with Clay as you can possibly be," and Matthews said it is "definitely a possibility" that he could move around more Monday night.
But for what it's worth, coach Mike McCarthy has prioritized communication problems as the Packers' top area of defensive concern -- not Matthews' pre-snap positioning. The Packers have had some well-chronicled coverage miscues in their secondary that have resulted in big plays, whether safeties have bitten on run fakes or provided coverage over the top to the wrong receiver.
And if Matthews is double-teamed more often, McCarthy said, he expects other players to take advantage of the corresponding opportunity.
"Our biggest improvement on defense is that we need to clean up some communication," McCarthy said. "The recurring big issue we've had is giving up big plays. That's what we're focusing on. … Pass rush comes down to winning your one-on-ones. Someone is going to have a one-on-one situation, and anytime you do have a one-on-one to rush the passer, it's important to win those."
In an ideal world, of course, that would be a fair expectation. But after eight games of waiting for another pass-rusher to step up, the Packers' best option remains neutralized. Even Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, speaking this week on his ESPN 540 radio show, acknowledged that "I don't think we've had the same kind of pressure through the first eight games that we've had in the past."
The Packers' defense would improve immediately if it eliminates the communication issues McCarthy is concerned about. But Woodson wasn't just talking about getting better. He wants to win the Super Bowl. The Packers need an active Clay Matthews to ensure that. The problem has been identified, and a possible solution floated. Will it happen? Stay tuned.