It's been an up-and-down season for Packers' All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews, to say the least. Matthews and the Pack started out 5-2, but with his broken thumb and devastating injuries to other key players (Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley, Casey Heyward, and seemingly every offensive lineman, just for starters), the team has slipped to 5-6-1, and haven't won since Rodgers' suffered his collarbone injury in Week 9.
It's now Week 14, and the Packers' chances of making the postseason are fading fast, especially with no return date set for Rodgers. With all of the turmoil surrounding him, we spoke to Matthews on the phone in Green Bay as he prepared for this weekend's match-up against the hapless Falcons at Lambeau Field. Matthews voiced his frustrations about the season as a whole, but still highlighted the Packers 3rd ranked pass rush—something that the 5th year pro and his 48.5 career sacks should be proud of. Yet, that hasn't been enough for the defense or the team as a whole this season. Matthews refuses to let the season slip away though, and given all of the adversity the team has faced thus far, he sees shades of the 2010 Super Bowl winning team in this year's Packers.
Interview by Justin Block (@JBlock49)
Clay, you missed a string of games in October because of a broken thumb. How's that feeling now?
It’s coming along. It’s obviously a lot slower than what I would’ve liked. It’s one of those injuries where it doesn’t seem like it’s invasive until all of a sudden you realize that everything you work with, everything at my position is playing with your hands, whether you’re defending the run or rushing the passer. I’ve been able to learn different techniques and moves to tackle and get at the opposition with one hand. It’s definitely coming along, and I’ll have to finish the season with it in a cast, but there won’t be any long-lasting effects.
You've now dealt with back-to-back injury riddled campaigns with the hamstring and the thumb. How do you go about dealing with even minor injuries now? Are you more careful?
I think injuries are part of the game. You don’t play with the fear of being injured, but it is part of it, especially at my position where a lot is asked of us. But you just put your best foot forward. When you’re dealt some adversity, you try and recover the best way you can with getting back out there and getting back on the horse. The same thing last year, I was out for a few games with a hamstring, but I was able to come back and finish real strong. This year, coming off that hand injury, I was forced to play in a club, which was horrible, but I was able to respond with a sack and come back the following week with two more. You definitely have to play the same way you would and put it behind you.
Speaking of sacks, you’ve recorded six sacks in eight games so far, which leads the team. As a whole, the defense is 3rd in the NFL in sacks. We've even seen A.J. Hawk, Nick Perry, and Mike Daniels contribute heavily in the sack department. What have Daniels and Perry done as second year players to make a leap to help you out on the pass rush?
Coming in off their senior campaigns at their respective schools, it’s difficult to be thrown in the fire and have those expectations that a whole organization depends on you. Both those players have stepped their game up significantly. I think Mike Daniels has 5.5 sacks, and has played fantastically. He’s helped me out especially by being an interior force and pushing that pocket. Nick obviously plays opposite of me and he’s had a foot issue for a while, but he’s been able to overcome that and force a big sack that turned into a touchdown last week for us on Thanksgiving Day. These guys are coming along and are only going to help me and this defense out. It’s good to see, especially moving forward since they’re such young talents.
A.J. in particular has surprised me—his 5 sacks so far are a career high. He’s not really known as a push-rushing force through the middle. Is the defense running more cross dogs blitz action to get him more involved on the blitz?
A.J.’s always been bringing it as far as his opportunity to blitz the passer. He’s just been able to come home free a few more times this year. Sacks, turnovers, and those big plays come in bunches. He had three sacks in one game against Baltimore, which is pretty special to see with me and Nick Perry go out. It’s good to see other guys pick up the slack when injuries occur, and we need to do that especially with our quarterback being down as well.
So far, the defense has struggled to generate turnovers this season. You guys are 2nd to last in total takeaways in the NFC despite being Top 10 last season and first the year before. What's changed?
You know what, if I had the answer I’d let you know. It’s been very difficult. We’ve been waiting for them to show up. I know last week I think we had three turnovers in the first few series, which was a good start, but ultimately, you’re right. You look at that 15-1 season, and there’s obviously a direct correlation with the takeaways and putting points on the board off of that. Really there’s no excuse. We just have to continue to stay active and stay ball hungry.
You alluded to this before. The team has struggled since Aaron went down with his injury. There are problems on offense, but the defense has fallen along with it. How has Aaron's injury impacted what you guys do on defense?
Without his success on the field, it’s going to put us on the field more, but ultimately that’s not an excuse. We just have to play our brand of ball, which I think we were doing earlier in the season, as mentioned with the sacks and playing the run very well. It kind of seems like we’ll play some plays very well, and then we’ll give up a few plays, and that’s not indicative of our defense. Ultimately, that’s led to too many yards and too many points scored, and that’s been the difference these last couple of games, especially losing our starting quarterback.
I'm sure you don't pay attention to Packers fan forums or the Twitter chatter much, but there's been a lot of calls for Dom Capers' head. How do you feel about what happening on defense right now, and how much of that is on Dom?
With all respect to the fans, they obviously just want to see us win. We understand that, and we want to win as well. Like I just alluded to, it’s a number of things in which we need to correct. I wish we could put the blame on one person or one thing, but we all have a part in this. Whether it’s tackling, sitting in the right scheme or playing within the scheme on defense, play-calling—it’s an all-around deal. We’re going through a rough patch of course, so we if can get the team moving in the right direction these last four games, that’s how everyone will remember us, is how we finished the season.
I feel like tackling has been a consistent problem throughout the years. Is that something that needs technique correction or just more practice? What’s the deal with the missed tackles?
Well we’ve been working on it. Some of these players you’ll expect that they’ll make you miss a little bit like the Calvin Johnsons and the Adrian Petersons, where we’ll have him wrapped up in the hole or a receiver covered up and they’ll come loose. Once again, there’s really no excuse for that, you just have to make the play by any means, and you’ve seen a number of runs and plays that have extended because we’re not doing a good enough job getting the ball carrier down. That really falls on every one individual as far as their want and desire in getting them down. It needs to be corrected and we’re working on it each and every week.
In 2010, you guys had 16 players on IR but still rallied to make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. Is there any leftover belief and mental fortitude from that season, given the insane amount of injuries there's been across the team to key players?
Absolutely. That’s the year in which it seemed we were down and out, but we were able to get a few wins and losses by teams we needed to. Very similar to this year, if we can win out like we did in 2010, and hopefully some teams help us out along the way, we’ve got a great opportunity as we get players back. We’ve had a number of key injuries, but if we can get our quarterback, and I know Randall Cobb has been waiting patiently to get back out there. There’s a number of players that if we get healthy, we can definitely make a run. Like I said, we have to get this started sooner than later or it’ll pass us by.
It just came down the wire that the NFL has hit you with a $15,750 fine for striking for "unnecessarily striking a defenseless player" with your helmet during the Lions game. Do you have any thoughts on the stricter tackling and hitting rules that Goodell's NFL has put in place?
It’s definitely making my life harder. You just have to play within the rules of the defense, and ultimately I think everyone understands that. Certain players they put an extra emphasis on, like the quarterback and wide receivers and playmakers on their side of the ball. It makes our job a little more difficult, and there are more things you have to be aware of. It’s frustrating, and I’ll probably go on and try to appeal this one again and state my reasons, and hopefully that’s enough. Obviously it’s difficult to be hit with these fines.
Closing up, I have to bring up your Gillette ads. They’re pretty intense.
I, as well as a few other athletes, have teamed up with Gillette. It’s been a terrific match. I think Gillette is synonymous with shaving and the precision of such, and we just talked about it, it’s no different than us in the NFL. On top of that, it’s been a fantastic match with how much they’re giving back and being involved in the community. Every week they’ve been posting on their Facebook page in which fans have the opportunity to answer questions and win prizes such as tickets to their home team’s games as well as the Super Bowl in New York. It’s been a great opportunity, and on top of that, like you said, good commercials and good products. You can’t beat that.