GREEN BAY — Clay Matthews is healthy and feeling good. And as long as the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker stays that way, he believes he and the Packers defense as a whole are in for a big year.
Having missed four games early last season with ankle and hamstring injuries and then having to play essentially one-armed late in the year because a separated shoulder, Matthews is ready for Sunday’s opener against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field — the where-does-the-time-go ninth opener of the 31-year-old’s career.
“It’s kind of crazy because I still like to think of myself as a young player,” Matthews said. “But nine years has kind of flown by. Fortunately, I give myself a pep talk that I’m still a young player.”
He also has a pep talk for critical Packers fans concerned that he’s no longer the field-tilting player he was early in his career. Coming off one of the least productive statistical seasons of his career, the six-time Pro Bowl pick is intent on reminding everyone what he can do when healthy.
“Whatever’s said outside of here is whatever,” Matthews said. “But any time I’ve had (doubters) — like in 2013 when I broke my thumb, had to have surgery and missed like five games — you put a little more emphasis (the following season) on showing everyone, ‘This is me.’ The same goes with this (year).
“Obviously, I don’t need to tell you, but battling through the shoulder and trying to be a warrior (was difficult). It’s like ‘Listen, I’m healthy. Put me out there for 16 games and good things are going to happen.’ But that’s a part of being a playmaker in this league. You want to make plays, you’re going to make plays, you (have to) live up to that and you accept that responsibility.”
When Matthews twice broke thumb during the 2013 season — after signing a five-year, $66 million extension that offseason — he came back the following year and had one of his best seasons, steadying a wobbly defense by taking one for the team and moving to inside linebacker. That year, he finished with 11 sacks, went to his fifth straight Pro Bowl and helped the Packers reach the NFC Championship Game, which they lost to the Seahawks after of a fourth-quarter meltdown.
Now, after recording a career-low five sacks last year, Matthews again is on the move. The free agent addition of ex-San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks only fueled discussion of Matthews lining up here, there and everywhere on defense, with the hope of making it harder for opposing offensive coordinators to scheme for him — if that’s something they still do, of course.
“It doesn’t matter where he’s at,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said matter-of-factly. “He’s got to make some plays.”
Matthews did just that during the playoffs, as he had a sack/fumble on the New York Giants’ Eli Manning during the fourth quarter of the Packers’ blowout NFC wild card win, then pressured Dallas’ Dak Prescott on a critical third-and-3 late in the fourth quarter of the Packers’ last-second NFC divisional playoff win the following week. It was no coincidence that Matthews became a bigger factor as his shoulder felt better.
Now, feeling healthy and confident, Matthews expects much more of that this season. And if he doesn’t produce? He understands the economics of his contract — he’ll be paid $11.1 million in total compensation this year and is set to earn $11.4 million next year, although the Packers could conceivably dump him before next season and the cost would be a wash — and the expectations that come with it.
“I’ve always been the type of guy who has tried to live up to that and appreciated that,” Matthews said. “At times there can be a lot of weight put on your shoulders, but you want to show your worth.
“I acknowledge when I’ve had down games — as much as I hate it — or when I’ve had great games or good seasons or bad seasons whatever it is. It’s part of being a player in this league. (But) I feel like I can do absolutely everything that I was able to do when I was 24. The only thing that’s changed is that I appreciate it more. I appreciate this opportunity. I appreciate every time I get go out there.”
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga was officially listed as questionable on the injury report.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Friday morning that Bulaga did less in practice on Thursday than he had the day before — something that was intentional and not a cause for concern. Barring a setback, it appears Bulaga will be good to go, as he promised the day after he injured his ankle Aug. 23.
“Just kind of as we planned all week,” McCarthy said of Bulaga’s limited Thursday work. “We’ll take the whole week and give him a chance to get ready.”