Clay Matthews III is a three-time Pro Bowler and has posted 34 career sacks in three seasons (including post-season). Last night, I analyzed every one of those sacks, looking for trends and interesting data. Here are some observations and thoughts.
-Matthews beat RTs on 8.5 sacks, with 4.5 to the outside and two to the inside (one spin move, one running straight through). On the other two, he didn't really 'beat' the RT as such: on one sack of QB Drew Stanton, he was initially stopped by the RT. When Stanton retreated past him, changing the angles, Matthews blew by to the new “outside” for the sack. The other came when Matthews was stymied by a RT, but the QB rolled to his side (Cam Newton) and Matthews chased him out of bounds.
-He’s beaten LTs for 10 sacks, with 8 of those coming in 2009. Six of those were outside and two inside (both on spin moves). On the two other sacks, Matthews was initially blocked, but the QB either rolled out to his side (Jay Cutler) or fell down (Daunte Culpepper). One sack came against a TE (bull-rush), one against two RBs (going outside on one and inside another) and one against a single RB, but involving great hustle. The game-ending fourth-down sack of Michael Vick (Week 1, 2010) came after Matthews beat both a TE and a RB. Two sacks came when Matthews was unblocked, both in 2010.
-The remaining 9.5 sacks came from various rushes up the middle, beating one of the interior linemen. On those middle blitzes, Matthews shows a great knack for getting on one shoulder of the lineman; that is, not running right into his body, but going by him to one side or the other. On the blitzes I saw, it’s typically very difficult for a guard or center to stop him doing that.
-Matthews’ speed going around the corner on tackles is probably his second-biggest asset. Whether it’s getting lower than low or slapping the tackle’s hands down and blowing by him, he “got the edge” on 11 sacks, a third of his total. His biggest asset, simply, is hustle. I scored as “HUSTLE” plays any sack where he found himself in the backfield and had to chase down the QB before sacking him. In ’11, three of six sacks involved some kind of hustle. In ’10, eight of 17. In ’09, five of 11. That’s 16 of 34. Only 4.5 of his 34 sacks involved some kind of inside move, three of which were spin moves (compared to 11.5 outside)*. Another middle blitz appeared to be a rush on Falcons RT Tyson Clabo, but Matthews instead spun off him and went through a gap in the middle instead. It was a breathtaking play.
So what are the takeaways from Matthews’ 34 sacks so far? He’s a great outside rusher and has great speed and hustle, but we knew that. He consistently shows great flexibility in the backfield, changing direction and tracking down the quarterback with relative ease. When he was moved to LOLB, it looked like genius after he put up 17 sacks in 19 games in 2010, but only 4.5 of those sacks actually came against right tackles. Two were on left tackles, two unblocked, one was the TE/RB sack and the remaining 7.5 were from rushes up the middle. All of Matthews’ 3.5 sacks in the 2010 playoffs came from rushes up the middle.
I have an idea as to why Matthews’ outside-rushing style didn’t produce as many sacks in 2011 as it did, on average, in 2009-10. Imagine a clock face laid atop the offensive pocket, where the center line runs directly through the quarterback. 12:00 is directly ahead of the QB and 6:00 directly behind him. Whichever side he’s rushing from, Matthews tends to get free around 6:00. From there he can proceed to the QB, but when rushing against the RT, he’s always in the quarterback’s field of vision. That makes it easier for, say, Eli Manning to see Matthews coming and step up in the pocket to avoid him. Rushing against the LT, this would be less of an issue, since it’s the QB’s blind side. However, really good QBs are also good at feeling pressure coming from the back side and stepping up anyway.
With a decent inside rush, all that wouldn’t be possible—which is one reason why Matthews’s style produced so many more sacks in 2010 than 2011. Cullen Jenkins and B.J. Raji provided inside pressure, so quarterbacks couldn’t step up as far in the pocket and Matthews’ sweep-around-the-outside style worked a little better. Conversely, the defensive line forcing quarterbacks to step back made life easier for Matthews, as they retreated into the area where he likes to rush. Hopefully Raji will return to his 2010 form, and one or another of the D-line new arrivals will be able to fill Jenkins’ inside rushing role in 2012. If that’s the case, Matthews’ sack numbers should climb once again.
The absence of another legit pass-rusher also explains why Matthews posted 7.5 sacks rushing up the middle in 2010, but only one in 2011. Blitzes where Matthews loops up the middle appeared to work best when they lost track of him, due to the presence of other legit pass-rushing threats. This year, when he looped up the middle, the line could focus on him and not really worry about Erik Walden and Raji. Ideally, Matthews should be more effective in 2012 in this role, if Perry, Raji and Jerel Worthy show up as rushing threats It would help if A.J. Hawk could improve in coverage, thus freeing Desmond Bishop to help Matthews on the blitz every so often, but that remains to be seen.
*On the two-RBs outside-inside sack, I’m scoring it as half a sack each for outside and inside.