GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) - Clay Matthews said he’s happy with continuing to spend at least part of his time at inside linebacker.
Whether the Green Bay Packers’ five-time Pro Bowl linebacker really likes the idea or is continuing to toe the company line, this much was clear during Thursday’s first open-to-the-public organized team activity practice.
The Packers intend to keep using him there, at least on a part-time basis and perhaps more often than he plays his old outside linebacker spot.
“Am I happy about it? Yeah, of course. I think you saw our team and our defense, how well we did the second half of the season and how well we improved - run, pass, win column, everything down the board, as well as my personal statistics,” said Matthews, who shifted inside at the bye week last year, when the Packers’ run defense was last in the NFL.
“It’s definitely going to provide a good challenge - and I’m up for it as far as learning a different position.
“I’ll still rush the passer and I’ll still get after the quarterback, but maybe I’ll do it from the inside this time and drop into coverage other times. I think what you saw last year might be an indication of what you’ll see this year. We’ll always have something up our sleeve.”
Matthews’ move inside didn’t just help the Packers’ defense as a whole. The group improved to finish 23rd in the league against the run and finished ranked 15th in total defense, tied for 13th in scoring defense and 10th against the pass, but Matthews’ production also spiked.
He finished with 11 sacks, 69 tackles, an interception and two forced fumbles after having just 2½ sacks at the time of the move.
“There’s no question in my mind that we became a better football team when we put the best 11 players on the field toward the end of the season,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said after practice Thursday.
Since the season ended, the Packers have cut their two opening-day starters at inside linebacker from last season (A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones) and let a third part-time starter (Jamari Lattimore) leave as a free agent.
The team didn’t do much to address the position during the offseason beyond taking Michigan inside linebacker Jake Ryan in the fourth round of the draft. And the other returning players at the position besides starter Sam Barrington (Carl Bradford, Nate Palmer) didn’t play a regular-season snap last year.
The Packers didn’t feel a need to add other inside linebacker options because they planned on using Matthews there again this season.
“(Matthews) is a great pass rusher, and he’s going to continue to play as many different positions as we could possibly get out of him,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We need to utilize Clay as much as we can. He’s a great player and we need to give him as many opportunities as we can to make plays.”
It’s also possible that the reason Matthews spent so much of his time inside during Thursday’s open practice - and presumably will continue to do so throughout the OTAs and the team’s mid-June minicamp - is that he has so little experience at the position.
After playing exclusively outside his first five seasons, last year’s switch forced him to take a crash course on playing inside, so this offseason provides an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the job’s responsibilities.
“The thing that I like about Clay working at inside right now - because he could go right back outside and play because he’s obviously got a lot more experience there - (is) we had to transition him during the bye week with maybe two or three extra practices and get ready to play against some pretty good teams,” Capers said. “If you look at his production the second half of the season compared the first half of the season, it was much greater.
“Now, our whole defense was a lot different, but I think Clay likes the challenge, and he knows the importance of him being able to play both places. And based off of injury, he could be doing that. Next year from one week to the next, he could be lined up outside, he could be lined up inside. What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to see how some of the guys do around him.”
NOTES: Pro Bowl wide receiver Jordy Nelson isn’t practicing in OTAs after undergoing hip surgery earlier in the offseason, but he downplayed the seriousness of the procedure. “I got things cleaned up but everything’s going well,” said Nelson, who refused to say exactly what the surgery entailed. “We’re excited where we’re at and continuing to move forward. Everything’s good.” … Fourth-year cornerback Casey Hayward, in line to start following the offseason departure of free agent Tramon Williams, is not practicing because of a foot injury but said he expects to be ready to go for training camp in late July. … Defensive tackle Letroy Guion, who was arrested in Florida on Feb. 3 on marijuana and gun possession charges but had the charges later dismissed after paying a $5,000 fine, apologized Thursday for “what happened in the offseason,” but repeatedly redirected the conversation with reporters when asked about the incident. “I’m grateful to be here. I’m glad my team stuck behind me, and I’m ready to start a new chapter,” Guion said.
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