Analysis Notebook: Week 10
When a game is as one-sided as the Sunday Night Football encounter between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field this past weekend it can be difficult to take too much from the game, and storylines tend to get lost in the wake of the overall pounding. Chicago was very bad, Green Bay was very good, and everything else is just lost in the haze.
One of the things to come from the game however was the deployment of Clay Matthews III by Green Bay inside at linebacker instead of on the edge in his usual position.
Green Bay spent the majority of the game in sub-packages on defense, playing either nickel or dime defense to combat the Chicago receiving options. This is a team that is often in sub-packages anyway, but they lined up in ‘base’ defense (four defensive backs, 3-4 alignment) against the Bears just twice compared with 20.8% of snaps heading into the game. The Packers ordinarily line up in nickel 49% of the time – it is essentially their base defense – but in this game it accounted for 81.1% of their defensive snaps.
Green Bay opened the game in nickel defense, with a 3-3-5 formation and Matthews started the game there inside rather than as the edge rush linebacker up on the line. On the two snaps the Packers ran their ‘base’ defense Matthews wasn’t on the field, so it’s impossible to say if he would have been deployed at outside linebacker in base or not, but what we do know is how he aligned in the sub-packages that were used in this game.
Whether the Packers were using three or four men on the line is somewhat irrelevant along with the resulting number of linebackers that left. What is important in looking at where Matthews was playing is the technique he was employing:
This chart shows his alignment by defensive technique as it corresponds to the offensive line, though with Matthews not a defensive linemen this is purely an exercise in horizontal alignment, rather than depth. Though Matthews did still spend a large amount of his time outside as a rush threat, as we can see from the image he played 29 snaps inside of the tackles, and another four head up over them.
The take away from this is that while Matthews started inside and certainly played there far more than in the past, he was still used where we all expect him to be and was still able to produce plays like this:
That kind of play has obviously become a staple of his game and what we all expect him to produce, so there is no point dwelling on it except to make the point that he didn’t play exclusively inside during this game, but rather moved around as the defense demanded.
But what about his plays inside? Was this gimmick or was he actually expected to play the role of a traditional inside linebacker?
As we can see here this wasn’t simply about rushing from the A-gaps inside and attacking teams from new angles:
Perhaps the biggest characteristic to his game normally is his instincts. There are few players that seem able to read the play better and more consistently than Matthews, and it allows him to make plays that would pass most other defenders by because he can adjust quickly on the fly. The first big play he made at this inside linebacker position came when he read the re-routing of a run quickly and was able to skip past the block of LT Jermon Bushrod who was heading to the second level to block him but had his leverage killed by the cut in the backfield. Matthews swatted him aside as if he wasn’t there and then made the tackle for a defensive stop.
But we know Matthews can rush the passer and defend the run. As different as things are inside, you would probably expect those skills to translate. What is perhaps most impressive is that he demonstrated a feel for coverage as well.
Take this play as an example:
Here is has a simple B-drop into underneath zone coverage, matching that of A.J. Hawk beside him in the defense. For the first portion of this play he doesn’t have a whole lot to do other than maintain his assigned zone and watch the play begin to break down in front of him. What happened when it did though is the impressive play. When TE Dante Rosario released from his blocking on the edge and circled around the line of scrimmage Jay Cutler suddenly had somewhere to go with the football and a potential good gain on 2nd and 11, but Matthews read it instantly.
Instead of heading to the quarterback when he saw the pocket begin to collapse, he made an instant line for Rosario, blasting him as soon as the ball arrived for a minimal gain.
This is an impressive play for a linebacker in coverage and while it’s not back-pedalling twenty yards into the secondary, it does at least show that he has instincts for coverage at the position and isn’t a defensive liability in that area.
Matthews is one of the league’s best pass-rushers, and the Packers aren’t about to sacrifice that every down. Even in this game he still rushed the passer 18 times, generating a sack and two hurries, but we did see that he is capable of playing a far more diverse role in the defense than simply edge rusher in their 3-4/nickel scheme.
The CMIII experiment at inside linebacker was certainly a success, as his +4.0 grade for the game showed. It will be interesting to see how much it takes shape in the coming weeks and whether it extends to the snaps Green Bay play in base defense.
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