GREEN BAY – Sidelined by a fractured shoulder blade for the Green Bay Packers’ first four games, Frank Zombo has had a ringside seat for every snap Clay Matthews has played so far this season.
Zombo has spent each game on outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene’s hip in the Packers’ bench area, dissecting every play and taking notes on what Matthews and fellow starter Erik Walden do. And while Zombo understands how surprising it is that Matthews has just one sack after registering 23.5 over his first two NFL seasons en route to back-to-back Pro Bowl selections, he believes the number belies Matthews’ impact.
“Clay’s disrupting plays all over the place,” Zombo said Thursday, as the Packers prepared for Sunday night’s playoff rematch with the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. “He’s getting a lot of criticism right now or whatever because he only has one sack, but you have a guy like that taking up three blocks and still getting quarterback hits, that’s obviously taking away from the offensive line and allowing other guys to make plays and helping our defense win.”
Matthews was getting treatment for the strained quadriceps muscle that has been bothering him recently and wasn’t in the locker room during the daily media access period Thursday, but he said last week that he wasn’t concerned about his limited statistical productivity.
“Sacks are a very misleading statistic. Obviously I had six after two games last year,” said Matthews, whose seven sacks through four games last season put him on pace for an NFL-record 28 at the quarter pole. “I’m doing my job, which is to put pressure on the quarterback. There's no doubt about that. And I'll be here when they're ready to come my way.
“That’s why I laugh at it because people want to jump in and say I haven’t gotten the sacks but at the same time, as long as I’m making impact plays, whether that be in the run game or pass game or covering someone, then I’m doing my job.”
As a team, the Packers are tied for eighth in the NFL with 11 sacks through four games, four sacks behind league-leading Washington and Philadelphia. Green Bay finished with 37 sacks in 2009 and 47 in 2010
According to Packers coach Mike McCarthy, Matthews has eight tackles for loss this season (the official postgame scoring summaries have him down for only four), and some of his biggest plays have come against the run. He was involved in the goal-line stand that preserved the Packers’ opening-night win over New Orleans; he made a key fourth-down stop on a fourth-quarter scramble inside the 5-yard line by Carolina quarterback Cam Newton in Week 2 and also had a tackle for loss on running back Jonathan Stewart; and he threw Chicago running back Matt Forte for a loss three times in Week 3.
In addition, Matthews leads the team in quarterback hits with 18, even though his only sack was a zero-yard stop of Newton when the rookie ran out of bounds and Matthews was his closest pursuer late in the fourth quarter of the Packers’ 30-23 victory on Sept. 18.
“There are other factors involved,” McCarthy said. “There’s nothing wrong with the way Clay Matthews is rushing the quarterback. It’s defense. It works together. The rush has to fit together with the coverage, and usually when the coverage holds longer, it creates more opportunities for more pressure from your pressure players up front.
“Clay’s having a very good year. He really is. I understand the statistical analysis of one sack.”
Matthews’ sack numbers aren’t the only numbers that are down on the Packers defense, either. While the 4-0 Packers are off to their best start since 2007, they rank 28th in total defense and 31st in pass defense entering Sunday night’s game. In their first two seasons under veteran defensive coordinator Dom Capers, they ranked in the top five in total defense each year, finishing No. 2 overall in 2009 (including No. 1 against the run and No. 5 against the pass) and No. 5 overall last year (including No. 18 against the run and No. 5 against the pass).
Their saving grace defensively has been forcing turnovers, as the Packers are tied for the NFL lead in interceptions (eight) and tied for second in total takeaways with 11.
Asked earlier this week if Matthews’ quadriceps injury might be a factor, McCarthy didn’t completely dismiss the notion. Last year, Matthews played the second half of the season with what turned out to be a stress fracture in his shin, an injury that limited him in practice each week. On Thursday, Matthews sat out his second straight day of practice, although he’s expected to practice Friday.
“When you’re injured as a player, I don’t care who you are, and you don’t practice, it may not directly affect you as far as your performance, but the continuity that comes along with practice is important,” McCarthy admitted. “So is that a factor? No excuses, we’re not going to make any. We did that better than anybody in my opinion last year, overcoming injuries.”
McCarthy also said Thursday that the Packers’ defensive approach has played a role, saying, “Are we rushing three more than we have in the past? Four? Five? Those are some things you need to look at.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Matthews has been on the field for 264 snaps this season, including plays wiped out by penalty. On those plays, he has rushed the passer 153 times, dropped into pass coverage 37 times, and defended the run 74 times.
As a team, the Packers have rushed five or more defenders on 35.8 percent of opponent dropbacks in 2011, 10th-highest rate in the NFL (four or fewer on 64.2 percent) The Packers sent five or more on 32.8 percent of pass plays last season, 17th-highest in the NFL (four or fewer on 67.2 percent).
“I’ve told Clay this: Clay’s playing as good of football as he’s played for us,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Anytime you become a marked man, you’re going to get a lot of attention. And during the course of a game, some games you’re going to get more opportunities than you get in others. If you’ve got as many third-and-longs as we did (against Chicago), we three-man rushed a lot. We’re going to do what it takes to win the football game.”
In fact, the Packers have used a three-man pass rush more than any other team in the league this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers have rushed three or fewer defenders on a league-high 42 dropbacks through the first four games, or 22.8 percent of all dropbacks, a percentage that also leads the league.
“Clay is having another fine year. He’s doing everything we’re asking him to do,” Greene said. “Very rarely will he have a one-on-one. I see him getting two if not three guys.
“Clay knows he’s on the radar now. He just needs to keep doing what he’s doing. He’s playing physical and doing the right things. Other people are making plays because of Clay’s getting (double-teamed). He’s absolutely tracking. I couldn’t ask for more of Clay’s progression.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.