In her seminal work “Nasty,” American poet Janet Jackson wrote:
Who’s that thinkin’ nasty thoughts? (Nasty boys!)
Who’s that in that nasty car? (Nasty boys!)
Who’s that eating that nasty food? (Nasty boys!)
Who’s jamming to my nasty groove? (Nasty boys!)
With those simple words she captured the essence of what “nasty” is. Thoughts, cars, food and even grooves. All can be nasty. But until this year, the Packers have lacked any nasty boys on their defense. Until now.
For those of you who haven’t stopped reading yet, thank you.
Since the Super Bowl Championship defense, the Packers D has lacked a real identity. Some have claimed that it has lacked leadership. At least one reporter asked Mike McCarthy in 2013 if the defense had become soft.
To fans and outside observers, the criticism seemed warranted. Without real veteran leadership it did appear that the Packer lacked the “edge” needed to be a very good defense. The leadership vacuum was felt especially after Charles Woodson departed.
Clay Matthews, as the biggest name and the player with the highest expectations on the defense, has been looked to as a leader. Matthews even said he should be the one who steps up into that leadership role.
Matthews explained in an interview with Rob Reischel in 2013, “Obviously the more comfortable I am in the scheme, which I very much am, the longer I’m here, the more tenured I am, the more I have to take that leadership opportunity.” Despite that proclamation, many have been left wondering if Matthews has really been able to step up into that role.
This year Matthews may finally be showing that he is the leader that the defense needs. With a respectable three sacks, Matthews has been a force on the inside and the outside as a linebacker. He has again made offenses account for where he is on the field. But more importantly, he’s been nasty. Not dirty, but the kind of player that keeps quarterbacks up at night.
Following the Chiefs’ game, Alex Smith likely remembered Clay Matthews finishing this hit.
The defense has always had its one maniac in Mike Daniels, a hard hitter not afraid to get into someone’s face. Matthews is also emerging in that role and it can only help the defense. Criticism of Matthews in the past (and it was certainly warranted) was that he was unable to hold the edge against the read option. On Sunday, Matthews showed his value and showed how you shut down the read option in the NFL. Hit the quarterback on every play.
Plays like that make a team, and a quarterback, think twice before running the read option. When a defensive player is tough, a little bit nasty, while staying within the rules, his presence will be felt on the field. For too long, it seemed like Matthews presence wasn’t being felt.
And a player like Matthews, when he’s playing with a little edge, can really get under an offense’s skin. By now, we’ve all seen the video.
— NFL (@NFL) October 5, 2015
Did it work? Did it get under the Niners’ skin? Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report says that 49ers players think that Matthews is a punk who crossed the line. More than just idle trash talk, Matthews got to them.
Does it matter? Does being perceived as “tough”, “nasty” or even “dirty” help a defense? An argument can be made that when a defense is playing with passion and intensity as Matthews seems to be playing with this year, it makes an offensive player think twice before taking a hit. It makes them think twice before trying to get that extra two yards.
More importantly, Matthews’ attitude signifies a change in the mindset of the defense. They’re not just along for the ride, letting the offense carry them. On Sunday they showed that when the offense sputters, the defense can be counted on. While they won’t likely be an elite defense (though with recent performances against some top runners it can’t be ruled out), they will be a unit that causes offenses trouble.
Matthews has also shown his leadership by accepting an altered role in the defense. The Packers clearly rely on him in the middle to stop the run, spy mobile quarterbacks, and to create the element of surprise for an offense that doesn’t know where he might come from. Despite playing in a position that is not his biggest strength, Matthews has done yeomen’s work.
In an era where star players, like Jimmy Graham, are making it clear that they aren’t happy in their roles (even if they deny it later), Matthews attitude toward playing inside linebacker has been refreshing. While it’s not ideal, and it might not be his biggest strength, he has done so without grumbling.
Considering that the part time move inside might actually cost him money with decreased sack numbers and fewer opportunities for quarterback pressures, Matthews’ acceptance of his new role cannot be downplayed. Playing with a renewed edge, and a greater role as a leader, Clay Matthews may very well be the reason this defense is performing much better than its predecessors.