Pass Rusher Profile: Clay Matthews
PFF's Lead Analyst, Ben Stockwell, continues his series of in-depth inspections of the league's best pass rushers with this look at Green Bay's Clay Matthews.
Pass Rusher Profile: Clay Matthews
There may not be a more consistent pass rusher who has been so heavily leaned upon to be his team’s lead source of pressure. In each of his four seasons in Green Bay, Clay Matthews has recorded at least 50 total pressures, and at least 25 of those have been hits or sacks. His pass rush grade has gone up every year and his Pass Rushing Productivity score has been around or above 10.0 in each of his four seasons.
This in spite of his complementary edge rushers in those four seasons being Erik Walden (2012, 2011 and 2010, combined -43.4 pass rush grade), Frank Zombo (2010, -14.1), Brad Jones (2010 and 2009, -10.7) and Aaron Kampman (2009, +0.8). Matthews is one of the rare players in the league that is truly the sole focus of an opposing team in terms of shutting down the defense’s pass rush, and yet his production has been almost metronomic in its consistency.
Ally this with solid run defense and an ability to drop into coverage when required and you not only have a top-line pass rusher but also one of the league’s most rounded 3-4 outside linebackers. Matthews has hit all the right notes to garner widespread support as one of the league’s elite defenders, not only being consistent in terms of getting pressure but turning that pressure into sacks and doing so in gluts, as he did in the first two weeks of the 2010 (six sacks) and 2012 (seven sacks) seasons.
The enduring message of Matthews as a pass rusher, though, is consistency and a consistency that belies his apparent dip during the 2011 season. While he might have registered only a “paltry” half-dozen sacks, a number that might be met with derision by some observers, he balanced that by registering a league-leading 22 QB hits. Only the stellar seasons of Cameron Wake and J.J. Watt topped that number in 2012.
Outside Pass Rush: 26 total pressures, pressure every 15.8 pass rushes
Matthews’ steady strength as a pass rusher over the past two seasons has been his ability to beat pass protectors to the outside and translate that pressure into hits and sacks.
In 2011 he was more proficient at winning to the outside (notching pressure once every 12.8 snaps), but had a lower conversion rate (43.2% of that pressure converted to sacks and hits) on his 37 outside pressures than on his 26 inside pressures (57.7%) in 2012. Among pass rushers who got at least 10 outside pressures this season, Matthews’ conversion rate — which was more than 20% better than the league average — was bettered only by Lamarr Woodley (61.5% on 13 pressures) and DeMarcus Ware (57.9% on 19) who each got less than 20 outside pressures and had an inferior pressure rate to Matthews.
While his conversion rate in 2011 was lower it was still among the league’s Top 20, and his 16 combines hits and sacks when beating a pass protector to the outside was bettered only by the 20 (9 sacks and 11 hits) that Andre Carter recorded for the Patriots.
In each season, outside pressure has contributed roughly half of the total pressure that Matthews is recording as a pass rusher, clearly showing that he is one of those top-line pass rushers that uses that outside threat to open up everything else for him in the passing game.
With the speed to turn the corner and take down the quarterback with or without the ball, opposing pass protectors have to respect and try to cut off that avenue, which opens up the threat of the inside move. While his inside move isn’t nearly as strong as his outside move (pressure every 33.9 rushes in 2011, 24.2 in 2012) the threat to the outside enables him to still be very productive when he changes direction and drives or stunts to the inside of an opposing pass protector.
With his step forward in efficiency getting pressure to the inside this season, Matthews was among the league’s Top 20 in terms of pressure rate and he was tied for second in the league (with Julius Peppers, Jared Allen and Chris Clemons) with five sacks to the inside of opposing pass protectors, almost as many sacks as he got total in 2011 and in large part set up by the overt threat of beating a pass protector to the edge.
Bullrush: 3 total pressures, pressure every 137.0 pass rushes
In the past two seasons combined, Matthews has registered only eight total pressures via bullrush and at his size it is not surprising to find out that his bullrush — the ability to just drive a tackle straight back to the quarterback — is the weakest weapon is his pass-rushing arsenal.
Different pass rushers take different approaches when they have tackles off balance, and clearly Matthews is either more comfortable, or simply more inclined, to slide inside of a tackle when he is off balance rather than getting right up in his chest and physically moving him to the QB. While it’s great to have the full repertoire like an Aldon Smith or a Von Miller, the key is having that second option that you can make consistently work and the “power” move that Matthews gets working is his inside move.
Alignment will play its part in this as well, with only a handful of 3-4 linebackers (Aldon Smith, Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo) figuring near the top of the list in terms of getting pressure via bullrush in either of the past two seasons. Both years the list is dominated by 4-3 defensive ends and Von Miller — when you have the ability to generate pressure around a pass protector to either side, as Matthews can, why would you waste your time trying to engage that blocker?
Joe Staley: 4 sacks
It is saying something about a pass rusher when your chief victim is one of the league’s premier tackles rather than a player who may not have a starting job next season. Staley surrendered only nine sacks and 27 pressures all season, but nearly half of those sacks were surrendered to Matthews across their two encounters at either end of Green Bay’s season.
Matthews’ play against Staley was a perfect microcosm of his season with two of those sacks coming to the outside, which set up one inside sack and one via bullrush. Add in a holding penalty drawn in the Week 1 encounter and you get the picture of Matthews not only recording pressure against Staley, but beating him comprehensively enough to get to the quarterback and take him down for a sack.
Matthews on his own is the chief culprit for making Staley look a worse pass protector than he is just based off one game. Staley’s pass protection is excellent (+18.5) and surrendering only 28 total pressures in 19 starts is exceptional. However, the nine sacks surrendered is an off-putting number. With a better encounter against Matthews, his stat line would look far more appealing to people looking for the league’s best pass-protecting tackles.
Matthews’ most troublesome opponent this season was his own hamstring which robbed him of four regular season starts. In every 2012 game that he played, he recorded at least one hit or sack… and in the games that he recorded only one hit, he registered at least three hurries.
With a combined 31 hits and sacks in a 14-game season, Matthews was able to generate pressure against every pass protector he faced. His longest streak without a sack (barring his injury absence) was the two weeks against Jacksonville and Arizona in Weeks 8 and 9, but even in those two games he still recorded a combined pass rush grade of +2.3.
You’d need to go back to the Packers’ Week 15 loss in Kansas City that cost them their shot at a perfect regular season in 2011 for the last time that Matthews didn’t record a hit or a sack. In that game Matthews registered only the one hurry, which he got by crawling through the legs of a tight end. He has been shut out only once as a pass rusher in his entire career, Week 7 2009 against the Cleveland Browns.
The Packers have just shown their confidence in Matthews by handing him a contract extension worth up to $66 million that would see him stay in Green Bay through the 2018 season, if he sees the contract through completely. Suffice to say the Packers are extremely happy with Matthews’ consistently high level of play, and why wouldn’t they be?
That Matthews has done all this with no complementary pass rusher is astonishing, and the loss of Erik Walden opposite him will almost certainly be of no consequence to his own level of play. If Nick Perry can put in the kind of performances expected from a first-round pick when he returns, this should only benefit the Packers’ defense and potentially Matthews’ level of performance as well.
When you have Matthews’ outside threat and his ability to counter that with inside moves, and you can combine all of that with the energy and desire to convert a high percentage of his pressure into hits and sacks, it is hard to see Matthews continuing to be anything other than one of the league’s most productive and consistent pass rushers.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.