Debating Clay Matthews' new role

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It was third-and-4 from the Green Bay Packers' 29-yard line in the first quarter of Sunday's game against the New York Jets, and Clay Matthews lined up in the middle of the defense, nearly 4 yards from the football.

He blitzed up the middle and hit Geno Smith in 2.4 seconds just as the Jets quarterback released the ball, which would turn into a touchdown pass to Eric Decker.

It was a prime example of one way defensive coordinator Dom Capers is using Matthews in his new 4-3 front.

But it's not the only way.

Through the first two games this season, Matthews has dropped into coverage far more often than he did last season, when he lined up primarily as an edge rusher in Capers' 3-4 scheme. Capers still does some of that with the four-time Pro Bowler but not anywhere near as much as he used to.

Last season, Matthews dropped into coverage on just 52 opponent dropbacks and rushed 284 times, according to ProFootballFocus. That's a rush rate of 84.5 percent.

So far this season, Matthews has rushed on just 72.5 percent of opponent passing plays for which he was on the field (50 rushes, 19 drops), according to PFF. That would be the second-lowest rate of his career. His 2012 number (84.4 percent) was an almost exact match to last season. Prior to that, his rush percentages were 77.5 percent (2011), 78.5 percent (2010) and 70.1 percent (2009), according to PFF.

Against the Jets, he was on the field for 34 passing plays. He rushed 22 times and dropped into coverage 12 times (a rush rate of just 64.7 percent). Given that Matthews has lined up away from the line of scrimmage more than ever, it makes sense that his rush rates have dropped.

But is moving Matthews farther from the quarterback the best use of his talents?

"I think he's equally as good in terms of rushing and dropping out of there," Capers said. "I think it just gives us more versatility in terms of what we can do with him."

Coach Mike McCarthy wholeheartedly endorsed the way Capers has used Matthews so far.

"When you have an exceptional football player, when you line him up in the same place every single time, you help the offense," McCarthy said. "If you want to chip him, if you want to slide to him, if you're able to practice it all week, Clay Matthews is over there or Clay Matthews is over there, it's an easier training process for the opponent. It's just really having Clay do the same things he's always done and just move him around."

Matthews registered his first sack of the season on Sunday against the Jets. It came when he was lined up at his traditional outside linebacker position.

After the game, Matthews was not seen in the locker room by the time it opened to the media. That same was true on Monday. But during OTAs, when the changes in Matthews' role were just becoming apparent, he did not think his pass-rush numbers would decline.

"I doubt I'm going to have to sacrifice statistics because I always feel like I can make my plays, but at the same time there will be some opportunities to present some mismatches," Matthews said at the time. "So it may not be your traditional line up here, line up there. There might be a little more difficulty for the offense, narrowing in on certain players, especially with the personnel that we brought in, myself included moving around a little bit more and just having fun with it."

But at least one former Packers linebacker thinks Capers and McCarthy have erred with Matthews' new role. Brady Poppinga, who played for the Packers from 2005-2010, responded to a tweet posted Monday about something McCarthy said about Matthews' new role.

Poppinga then offered his advice about how to use Matthews and Julius Peppers.

It's safe to say Capers disagrees.

"I think for him, when you look at the big picture, if he's lined up on the end and he's got a 330 pound tackle blocking him all day, I just think over the long run this is going to be better for him, too," Capers said.