Matthews looks to stay healthy
He's arguably the best outside linebacker in football.
He's averaged 0.73 sacks per game during his first five NFL seasons. He's played in four Pro Bowls, posted double-digit sack totals three times, and completely changes how the Green Bay Packers play defense.
But Clay Matthews still has one gigantic hurdle to overcome. He must prove he can stay on the field.
The only season Matthews has played all 16 games was his rookie year of 2009.
In 2010, Matthews missed the entire preseason and a Week 6 game against Miami due to a left hamstring injury. He was largely healthy in 2011, then rested in the regular-season finale.
Matthews missed four-plus games in 2012 with another hamstring injury. Then he played in just 50.2 percent of the snaps in an extremely frustrating 2013.
Matthews missed approximately seven full games last season after fracturing his thumb on two different occasions. He also missed half a game with another hamstring injury.
That same thumb injury sidelined Matthews the entire spring. Now, despite a terrific start to his career, he must show he can play a full season if the Packers' 25th-ranked defense hopes to improve.
“He has to show that he can line up and stay healthy,” Packers linebackers coach Winston Moss said.
When Matthews is healthy, he's undoubtedly one of the NFL's elite defenders.
His speed off the edge is breathtaking. His motor is virtually unparalleled. He's Green Bay's most sure tackler. He's terrific in coverage. His intensity is contagious. His instincts are sublime.
All of those attributes helped Matthews ink a five-year, $66 million deal in April, 2013, that made him the NFL's highest-paid linebacker. But he has played just 60.6 percent of the snaps in the past two seasons, and Green Bay undoubtedly needs to see far more of No. 52 than it has over the past 24 months.
“I'm feeling good,” Matthews said during OTAs. “It's been a long off-season obviously with the surgeries and the rehab and the physical therapy and all that. But it's definitely coming along.”
Matthews first broke his thumb in a Week 5 win over Detroit. He returned in Week 10 wearing a protective cast that gave him fits. He then went to a less restrictive cast in Week 11 and began wreaking havoc once again.
But in the Packers' Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh, Matthews broke the thumb again while sacking Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He had surgery two days later and his year was finished.
Now, after an off-season dominated by rehab and physical therapy, Matthews simply can't wait to play football again.
“I'm doing everything I can to get back out there as soon as I can,” said Matthews, who still had a team-high 71/2 sacks despite the injuries. “I don't see there being any hindrance toward the beginning of the season, toward camp… We'll keep getting stronger and hopefully by that time be ready to roll.”
If Matthews can stay healthy, the Packers could be more explosive at outside linebacker than they've been in years.
Green Bay signed outside linebacker/defensive end Julius Peppers, who has 1181/2 career sacks, back in March. And Peppers should give Matthews his best pass-rushing partner since Aaron Kampman in 2009.
“I can tell you that things we've asked him to do, he's done a nice job of,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of Peppers. “He'll be one of those, quote, hybrid-type guys. He'll rush, he'll drop, he'll do a lot of different things.
“He'll play different spots for us. I'm glad we have him. He's a rare guy from a talent standpoint. He's done a nice job mentally of picking up what we're asking him to do and, quite frankly, has looked pretty comfortable doing it.”
Over the past four seasons, the outside linebacker spot opposite Matthews has been a sore spot.
Frank Zombo had four sacks in 13 games in 2010. Erik Walden was the primary starter in 2011 and '12, and finished with six sacks over two years.
The Packers mixed and matched a year ago, especially after Matthews went down. Mike Neal had a strong year with five sacks and 30 pressures, but the rest of the group struggled.
Peppers (6-foot-7, 287 pounds) remains one of the NFL's most remarkable physical specimens. He's extremely fast, powerful and explosive.
The Packers could line up Peppers and Matthews in a variety of packages. And if Peppers, 34, still can perform at a high level, he and Matthews could make a dynamic tandem.
“I think it'll be good for us,” Matthews said. “It's good to see him, obviously he's been a fixture around this league, a playmaker around this league for quite some time now. It will be good playing on the same side as him and having him garner some attention as well as myself. It's going to present some difficulties for the offense.”
The emergence of Neal gives Capers even more options. Neal made an impressive switch from defensive end to outside linebacker last season, then signed a two-year, $8 million deal in March.
The wild card in the group remains Nick Perry, a former first-round draft pick entering his third season. Perry was impressive early on last season, but he suffered a broken foot at Baltimore in Week 6.
Perry returned for the final six games, but wasn't the same player. He then missed the entire off-season with an undisclosed injury.
Perry has now missed 17 of 35 games in his short career (including playoffs). And Green Bay's coaches seem to be out of patience.
“Nick Perry in my book has done absolutely zero,” Moss said.
Added Packers head coach Mike McCarthy: “I don't think it helps any player to miss a whole off-season. You have a season to get ready for. You have this much work.
“And to do it all in a nine-week period, and for a player to miss all of it, obviously it's not a good situation to be in. I think any of the players who did not take advantage of this nine-week opportunity or due to injury is definitely something they're going to have to work harder to catch up once training camp starts.”
For better or worse, the Packers appear to still be married to veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones at inside linebacker.
Hawk, now in his ninth season, led the Packers in tackles last year (153) for the fifth time in his career. He also had a career-high five sacks and was part of three turnover plays after being shut out in that department for 2½ seasons.
But Hawk's lack of speed, athleticism and his inability to shed blocks will always be liabilities.
Jones was hampered by hamstring and ankle injuries last year. And when he was healthy, he didn't come close to playing up to his three-year, $11.75 million contract.
Many expected the Packers to replace one or both inside linebackers this off-season. But after ignoring the position in the draft, the greatest competition will likely come from up-and-down fourth-year man Jamari Lattimore.
The biggest story with Green Bay's linebackers, though, will be Matthews.
“It's been a long off-season,” Matthews said. “But I'm looking forward to continuing to heal up, being healthy, in time for the season.”
Which is something the Packers desperately need.