Matthews to play against Detroit
GREEN BAY—If Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews were going to miss a game, this would be the week to do it.
Since entering the NFL in 2009, Matthews has sat out six games—five because of injury and one a rest going into the playoffs—and of those six, three have come against the Detroit Lions. In those three games, the Packers are undefeated.
The reality, however, is that the Packers couldn't need Matthews more than this Sunday, when they host the Lions at Lambeau Field. Owners of a 1-2 record and in danger of falling 2½ games behind the 3-1 Lions, the Packers don't want to leave anything to chance.
And it doesn't appear they will.
Matthews was back on the practice field in full pads Thursday 11 days after pulling a left hamstring muscle that has been the culprit all five of the times he has missed a game due to injury. After fully taking part in practice, Matthews declared himself ready to play against the Lions.
"I'll be out there this Sunday," Matthews said after practice.
Matthews credits a decision that was made late in the first half of the Packers' 34-30 loss to Cincinnati for avoiding the kind of long-term effect he felt last season when he missed four games with the same injury.
The Packers were ahead of the Bengals, 16-14, and had forced four straight turnovers when Matthews departed. Two of the turnovers were the result of Matthews-forced fumbles, one of which safety M.D. Jennings returned for a touchdown.
Matthews probably could have returned in the second half, but he decided it was wise to pull back.
"It was both my decision as well as the medical staff and the coaches," Matthews said. "I just told them where I was at and how I felt and moving forward what the smart thing would be. At that point in the game, with that lead, too, I felt like it was the wise decision."
It turned out to be disastrous one for the defense.
Matthews was on a tear in the first half with a sack and the two forced fumbles and probably would have forced the Bengals to do more to contain him had he stuck around. But in the second half, the Bengals scored touchdowns on two of four possessions, including an 80-yard, fourth-quarter drive that put them in striking distance of the Packers with just under 11 minutes to go.
With Matthews in the lineup, the Bengals gained 119 yards and quarterback Andy Dalton had a passer rating of 39.2. Without Matthews, the Bengals gained 178 yards and Dalton posted a passer rating of 150.0.
Though the Packers have won four of six games with Matthews out, the opposition has piled up big numbers when he is gone and in all but one case kept their quarterback mostly upright.
In the six games without their star, the defense gave up an average of 408.8 yards, had an average of 1.67 sacks and allowed a combined passer rating of 126.4. Just as importantly, was the breakdown in run defense, an under-rated part of Matthews' game.
Teams averaged 142.5 yards rushing in those six games.
In other words, Matthews is a pretty important guy.
'He's really, really, really good," Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said Thursday. "We have to be aware of him, but they've got other players. If you spend too much time on him, they will affect the game as well.
"It's a tough challenge for our guys. He presents a little different type of player. He's more of an active rusher, never out of a rush, not a very big guy but big enough. He can rush from anywhere, he can rush from inside, they can start outside and come under, he can speed rush you, so it's a tough challenge. Our guys are doing a lot of studying on him."
Matthews' impact was evident from the start this season. He was a key factor in keeping San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick contained, sacked him once, had a pair of 7-yard tackles for loss and a quarterback hit. He split a tackle for loss and registered a quarterback hit against Washington in Week 2.
Then came the breakout against the Bengals. It was the most visible sign of why the Packers gave him a five-year, $66 million contract extension this offseason, making him the second-highest paid outside linebacker in the NFL.
"I always try and improve my game week in and week out, year in and year out, so whether it's hits on the quarterback, sacks, TFLs, dominating tight end to tackle, I feel like I've done a good job," Matthews said. "I'm never going to say I've arrived; I'm too neurotic to do that. There's always room for improvement. I look to continue that this week."
Matthews said treatment of the hamstring, which caused him to miss most of his first two training camps, has become less complicated over the years. Early on, there was a tug-of-war going on between the feeling he must play and the elimination of as much risk as possible.
The wiser, more experienced Matthews has a better feel for when the caution flag is up and when it's safe to resume top speeds.
"I think a younger Clay thought the world was over and I was going to be cut the next day and I'm not living up to the billing," he said. "But I've just got to get healthy. It's part of the deal. When I come back, I'm going to be the same player that I've been for the past several years.
"I wish we all had an answer for it, but I'll come back and I'll make the plays that I do."
Matthews said there would be no limit on the amount of snaps he plays against the Lions, but he also would be smart about pushing it too hard. As much as the Packers could have used him in the second half against Cincinnati, they need him even more for the long term.
He apparently has a good understanding of that.
"I wouldn't put myself out there if I wasn't (100 percent) and obviously that's this week what we've built up to," Matthews said. "Coming in on Monday, I felt good. I obviously had to prove to myself and to the coaches that I'm capable of not only being able to run and cut and do everything I need to but do it at a high level to where it won't affect this defense.
"So I feel good about it. I don't think you'll see a drop off come Sunday."
The Packers are counting on it.