Can Green Bay’s Clay Matthews be Better than his Dad?

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In OLB Clay Matthews, the starting defense of the 2010 Green Bay Packers features one of the most dynamic young players in the NFL.  The second year pro out of USC is really flourishing within Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 system, and the race for NFC Defensive Player of the Year figures to come down to him and Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel.

Matthews finished fourth in the NFL in sacks, second in the NFC.

“Once you finish your rookie year you kind of see what you need to improve on,” Matthews said at Cowboys Stadium during the Nike Football Media Summit last week.

“For me, I think I finished the season pretty well and I knew coming into the season that I was going to get a lot more attention from opposing offenses, so I knew I had to not only get bigger, faster, stronger, but also my mentality- that’s kind of where I been this year. Trying to be a leader and being relentless and ruthless in getting after it, kind of the same approach I’ll take going into my third year,” he continued.

By Paul M. Banks

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Packers’ Clay Matthews: NFC Defensive Player of the Year?

clay matthews

It’s really been a phenomenal season for both the NFC Champion Green Bay Packers defensive unit and their star Left Outside Linebacker Clay Matthews. The second year pro out of USC is really flourishing within Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 system, and the race for NFC Defensive Player of the Year figures to come down to him and Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel. If you’re one to bet on sports, you might want to put money on Matthews getting sacks in the Super Bowl.

“I was fortunate enough that my first year was his (Capers) first year. I think we finished one or two in defense last year. And I think right now we’re leading the NFL in points per game allowed,” Matthews said at Cowboys Stadium during the Nike Football Media Summit.

Matthews will be return to Cowboys Stadium for Super Bowl 45, the annual sports betting event.

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Seriously? The DEFENSE won a game for the PACKERS?

Cowboys Packers Football

By Jake McCormick

Typically, sports rivalries between states are cyclical, and right now, Minnesota is making me glad I’m still not going to college an hour and a half from their border. But this past weekend gave me a little needed confidence in Wisconsin sports.

Brewers GM Doug Melvin is stockpiling money like Bazooka Joe comics to cash in on some pitching, Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings (to which I was a witness) became the youngest player in NBA history to tally 50+ points in a game, and Wisconsin football is a step closer to double digits wins and a January bowl. Of course, this state lives and dies by the green and gold, and the Packers’ win would’ve been all it took to get Wisconsin’s blood pressure back to stable levels.

It was a win in arguably the most important game of the 2009 season for the entire organization, against a Cowboy team that had rattled off four straight wins and was beginning to put a season of relevancy back together. But as significant as this win might be for the rest of the season, it is almost as confusing as the loss to the Buccaneers.

Until the 17-7 win against the Cowboys on Sunday, the Packer defense had been doing its best Carrie Prejean impression of increasing ineptness against the Vikings and Buccaneers. Just when you thought she couldn’t make herself look even dumber, she opens her mouth on national television and makes Sarah Palin look like a MENSA member. Interesting the maverick of hockey moms is her idol, too. Back to football.

Was the Buccaneer game really the big slap in the face to get the Packer defense to trust their skills and the scheme? The (mostly Chuck Woodson) defensive-led win was the first of its kind since last year against the Colts. All things considered, the players should have some increased confidence now that they know what can happen when they play within their roles. The most interesting tid-bit to come out of this win was the fact that the Packers registered five sacks. Without Aaron Kampman.

Of course, you could make the assumption that rookie Brad Jones was a better option anyways because he is naturally an outside linebacker, and more than a few Packer fans have done so since Sunday. Plus, Kampman is a free agent after this season, and quietly was not happy about switching positions in a contract year. With that said, I find it hard to believe that Kampman’s absence was the catalyst for the defense to pull together and carry the offense.

Cowboys Packers FootballClay Matthews is becoming comfortable as the monster playmaker AJ Hawk was supposed to be, but Hawk made his fair share of big play hits against Dallas. My guess is they must’ve shared the same Muscle Milk regimen and hair stylist leading up to the game. Nick Barnett also looked more comfortable than he has all year. With three natural linebackers flying around and making plays like they were expected to, wouldn’t that free up Kampman to do the same? He very well may walk this year, but Kampman is still a more complete player than anyone the Packers could inject into his spot.

After following up an unexpected loss with an unexpected win, the Packers are only a game out of the Wild Card and very much alive in the playoff race. That makes every game from here on out a must win, much like Sunday’s against Dallas. This is the time of the year where Wild Card teams fizzle or get hot, and Green Bay can still go either way. However, the win against the Cowboys was a step in the right direction and Packer fans can only hope the team understands that they have seven more Dallas games to play if they want to reach the postseason. I think I’ll just close my eyes and hope for the best against Mr. Bugeye Singletary this Sunday.

Most Overlooked NFC North Storylines

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By the TSB Staff

The NFC North will undoubtedly be a reality series this fall with the Brett Favre-Minnesota Vikings story likely to be “the lead” all year in most NFL content-producing mediums. #1 overall draft pick Matt Stafford helping rebuild the Detroit Lions, Jay Cutler bringing the Chicago Bears solid quarterback play for the first time since the Industrial Revolution will be huge as well.  But what about under-the-radar NFC North storylines? What interesting developments have been under-reported?

SAM SVOBODA

The Bears’ loss of safety Mike Brown.

Even though he’s had injury problems, I was shocked at how little I heard about the Bears letting him go. I thought maybe it was because I was in California at the time, but it turned out my brother (who’s been in Chicago the whole year) didn’t even know about it until seeing that Brown signed with the Chiefs in June. Yes, Brown has lost a step with his injuries and age, but he played 15 games last year and proved that he can still make plays. More importantly, he brought leadership and experience- Brian Urlacher has always gotten more press, but I really believe that Brown was the heart and soul of the Bears’ defense.

Perhaps the main reason that I think Brown’s departure is a big story though, is because of the safeties that the Bears kept. If the Bears had some great, established safeties then I would have had an easier time understanding letting Brown go. But the team’s current list of safeties reads like this: Kevin Payne, Danieal Manning, Craig Steltz, Josh Bullocks, Al Afalava. I really hope some of the above guys can prove themselves as consistent NFL starters, but if the Bears’ safeties are repeatedly beaten this season, you have to wonder about the decision to let Brown go.


JAKE MCCORMICK

What’s missing? The answer is anything about the Green Bay Packers. As we’ve seen from even just the past week, ESPN will report every time Brett Favre involuntarily farts when he gets under center for the Vikings. It’s like a politician, where everyone is giving him advice on how to act, what he needs to do to gain his teammates trust, and the best way to overcome the doubts.

The Lions are a story because they are a team with a new image, the biggest being the new badass Lion on the helmet. The worst team in the league from the previous year always gets obligatory press coverage because it’s interesting to see how they change their approach on Sundays.

The Bears have a mini-Favre in Jay Cutler, who is a great talent but already a prima donna. And he doesn’t even have a winning record as a starter. How he responds to moving from a team with good receivers, a banged up running game, and a terrible defense to a team with a good running back, bad receivers, and an aging defense will be something to watch.bearstrainingcamp2

That leaves us with the Packers, and the biggest storyline that anyone can pick up will be the transition to the 3-4 and how Aaron Rodgers responds as a second-year starter. But honestly, name one story about the Packers that has made any sort of noise on ESPN or anywhere outside of Wisconsin. And no, the team’s reaction to Favre’s return doesn’t count. Green Bay has the talent and depth to be much better than last year’s 6-10 record indicates, and although Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy build the team through the draft, the fact that they only kept one coach from 2008 on the defensive side of the ball this season says something about the team’s sense of urgency. The whole Packer organization is an underreported and under-the-radar story, which is funny considering it is one of the top three most popular teams around the world. For proof, I offer this: My girlfriend spent a semester in Spain and her host brothers knew nothing about football, but they all had Green Bay Packer bobble-heads.

SOXMAN

The coverage of the Favre signing was to the sports world what the death of Michael Jackson was to the pop culture masses.

I’m actually more curious to see if rookie WR Percy Harvin can unseat Devin Hester as the next American Idol of the return game.  The kid can fly and actually might end up being a decent wide receiver as well.  Did you hear that #23?

What ever happened to Devin Hester’s return game anyway?  He is the Rueben Studdard of the NFL- minus about 200 lbs.bearstrainingcamp1

Other NFC North storylines- “My Tight End” sounds like the name of an alternative lifestyle reality show, but actually it’s a question.  With the exception of “the Packers,” (again, minds out of the gutter), all North division QBs have a new tight end.  Who will be the first TE to establish that “till free agency do we part” chemistry with their ball hurler?  Cutler and Olsen, who have already established chemistry on the Chicago nightclub scene?  Stafford and Pettigrew?  Both are NFL “first timers,” who only have each other in a world of potential pass rushers?  Or old man Favre and Visanthe Shiancoe?  Given Favre’s love of men who can go long, anything is possible.


PAUL SCHMIDT

I know, the Jay Cutler talk and the love affair with him is ridiculous right now, and it’s getting just as tiresome as the Brett Favre story.  Well…maybe not that bad…but it’s getting old.  The thing people need to be talking about with the Bears is what happens if they are bad?  I mean, there’s a lot of speculation about the receivers, and maybe it’s founded, but it would seem to me that there isn’t enough speculation about the defense.
What happens if Tommy Harris isn’t ok?  What happens if Brian Urlacher continues to slide as he ages? What happens if Lance Briggs’ ego continues to grow and it gets in the way of his performance?  What happens if Peanut Tillman isn’t ok, and doesn’t heal properly?  What happens if Danieal Manning doesn’t get better?  What if Nathan “The Interceptor” Vasher sucks again this season?  What if no one steps up in the secondary?  What if the defensive line STILL can’t get pressure on an opposing QB this season?vikingsheadshadow

See?  There’s a ton of questions.  The defense isn’t a sure thing to be great.  The offense BETTER score a lot of points, because the defense just might be giving up quite a few…

The point is, if the Bears aren’t a playoff team, and end up .500 or worse, is Lovie Smith’s job on the line?  Jerry Angelo’s? Both have really put their necks on the line with the Cutler deal yet not bringing in any top WR (like Anquan Boldin). Shouldn’t they be on the hot seat just because of that?

SHAYMUS MCLAUGHLIN

In my opinion, it has to be Aaron Rodgers coming into his own as an elite QB in the NFL. He put up pretty ridiculous stats last year, especially for a first year starter (4,038 yards, 28 TDs, 13 INTs, and a 63.6% completion percentage). He managed to do it with the whole Brett Favre thing weighing down on him, which makes the feat even more impressive. While the mainstream media will be keeping an eye on Favre’s follies in Minnesota, Cutler’s conquest of Soldier Field, and Stafford’s starting gig in the Motor City, Aaron Rodgers will be quietly be amassing elite numbers for the green and gold at Lambeau Field.

Packers preview part 2: The defense

"I'm the NEW minister of defense around here"

"I'm the NEW minister of defense around here"

By Jake McCormick

Twenty two NFL teams changed defensive coordinators this offseason, but none has been talked about more than Green Bay’s transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 headed by Dom Capers. The Packers Donald Trumped nearly their entire defensive staff after a dismal 2008, where the team finished 20th in Total Defense, 26th in Rushing, 12th in Passing, and 11th in Points Allowed on their way to blowing seven fourth quarter leads. The change to the more unpredictable 3-4 will take time, but Capers is easily the Packers best 2009 offseason pickup, as he is known for quick turnarounds when transitioning to his scheme.

Capers turned the 1998 26th ranked Jacksonville Jaguar defense into the league’s 4th-ranked defense in 1999, and vaulted Miami’s defense from 18th in 2005 to 4th in 2006. Now with the Packers, he’s got two former Capers’ system standouts (outside linebacker coach Kevin Greene and secondary coach Darren Perry), and an experienced defensive coordinator that was willing to take a demotion to coach under Capers (defensive line coach Tom Trogvac). The defense will remain a massive question mark until Week 1, but in Capers I trust.

Defensive line
In a 3-4 scheme, the nose tackle must be able to absorb more than one blocker on a regular basis to open pass rushing lanes. Likewise, the defensive ends need to play like a 4-3 tackle-end hybrid (if that makes any sense) and create an effective rush while taking on multiple blockers.

Ryan PickettThe Packers closest thing to a definitive 3-4 nose tackle is Ryan Pickett, who has been very open to the change. Johnny Jolly will rotate with him, provided he isn’t suspended for his involvement in a Purple Drank smuggling run. It’s important to note that the San Diego Chargers’ switch to the 3-4 was eased considerably by tackle Jamal Williams’ embrace of the scheme. Pickett’s attitude could have a similar impact, although he isn’t the same player as Williams.

Cullen Jenkins was on his way to a career year in 2008 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4. Reports from the Packer training camp are showing that Jenkins is already showing a lot of potential as a 3-4 end and is enjoying the transition, although he is a bit undersized for the position. But the key to the defensive line’s cohesiveness lies with a pair of first round picks in Justin Harrell and B.J. Raji, who remains unsigned.

Harrell continues to insist he is healthy, but having the back of a 75-year-old man doesn’t give me too much confidence. He is a prototypical 3-4 end, and any consistent production from him will be a huge step forward for the line. That means that Raji will see a lot of playing time at end and should give the Packers a combined 700 lbs of bulk between him and Pickett.

Linebackers
The last time Green Bay transitioned to a 3-4 defense in 1980, new coordinator John Meyer noted that “Linebackers are the heart of a 3-4. That’s why you go to a 3-4.”

The Packers are very deep at all the linebacker positions, with Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk starting in the middle and backed up by Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop, who has reportedly been outplaying Hawk in camp so far. When Barnett went down with a knee injury last year, Hawk stepped into the middle linebacker position and began to look a lot more comfortable than on the outside. Barnett still isn’t cleared to return to full practice, and Chillar has filled in nicely with his pass rushing and coverage skills.

Hopefully we see more of this from his position at OLB

Hopefully we see more of this from his position at OLB

Green Bay’s outside linebackers are facing the most question marks, most notably surrounding former defensive end Aaron Kampman’s positional switch. The success of the entire corps will depend on Kampman’s ability to adjust to a completely different role. The closest comparison I can give is Greg Ellis’ switch with the Dallas Cowboys, where he registered 12.5 sacks in his second season in the 3-4. A lot of pressure is being put on the Packers’ best pass rusher, but his constant motor and willingness to learn the position can’t set him too far back. I don’t expect him to repeat his sack numbers from past seasons, but any type of consistent play will help the defensive unit as a whole.

As for the other outside spot, rookie Clay Matthews was penciled in as the final starter before training camp began. However, Jeremy Thompson, another converted end, has been the biggest defensive camp surprise and looks to be the starter as of late. Throw in Brady Poppinga, who plays a lot like Kampman, and Capers has to really like this unit.

Secondary
The Packer secondary was probably the only consistent playmaking part of the 2008 defense, as they sent cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris, and safety Nick Collins to the Pro Bowl. If Atari Bigby can avoid his pension for accumulating injuries and return to his 2007 form, the secondary will be the least of Capers’ worries.

I LOVE Craig Newsome! Oops...I mean Charles Woodson.

I LOVE Craig Newsome! Oops...I mean Charles Woodson.

Woodson and Harris are used to playing predictable man-to-man coverage, which gave me enough headaches because it allows for a lot more big-play and game-winning opportunities (see: pass interference on third and long to set up Week 10 Vikings win). Now they are expected to play more zone and face the quarterback under Capers’ philosophy, which should cut down on pass interference tendencies while still allowing them to make interceptions. Nickle corner Tramon Williams will continue to develop into a solid player, and backups Patrick Lee, Will Blackmon, and rookie Brandon Underwood give the Packers a nice balance of developing youths and savvy veterans.

The fact that Collins is reporting to camp despite his contract issues shows that he understands the difficulty of learning a new scheme. Both Bigby and Collins will be expected to be secondary “quarterbacks” of coverage, and as long as they stay healthy there’s no reason to believe they won’t do their jobs well. Newcomer Anthony Smith, who was a very capable backup in Pittsburgh behind Troy Polomalu, is the only player with experience in the 3-4. Aaron Rouse is a big guy that made some key plays a year ago, and he should continue developing into a solid option should Collins falter at free safety.

The Packers definitely have the personnel to transition to the 3-4 scheme, and after last year’s terrible play and ungodly predictable packages, they can’t finish any worse with a guy like Dom Capers calling the shots. Green Bay’s 2009 success will once again hinge on the performance of the defense, and if Capers can just get them to close out games effectively while keeping the offense guessing, the Packers will be in the thick of the NFC North race.