GREEN BAY – On a night full of unforgettable moments, it is still the most goosebump-creating, spine-tingling sequence of them all. Nick Collins’ interception return for a touchdown, Greg Jennings’ clutch third-down catch, any one of Aaron Rodgers’ pinpoint throws – they all combined to deliver the Lombardi Trophy to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
But it is in the minutes between the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth quarter, in the exchange between outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, and on the first play of the final quarter, when Matthews wallops Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall to force a tide-turning turnover, that the game may very well have been decided.
After all, a 21-3 lead had gone up in smoke, the team’s emotional defensive leader, Charles Woodson, had been lost to a broken collarbone, and the Packers were on the ropes.
“Everybody looks up to ‘Wood’ as a leader. He is gone,” Greene can be heard exhorting Matthews. “Nobody’s (expletive) standing up and (expletive) rallying the troops. It … is … time. It is time.”
Packers fans know full well what happened next: On second-and-2 from the Packers’ 33-yard line, Matthews read the play pre-snap, came up and drilled Mendenhall, forcing a fumble that Desmond Bishop recovered. The Packers took the ball and pushed their lead to 28-17 with a touchdown drive, and while there were still tense moments to come, the Packers were back in control. (The sequence occurs at roughly the 38-minute mark in the NFL Network broadcast of America’s Game below.)
“In my opinion, it ranks as the most important play in the Super Bowl,” Rodgers says in the documentary.
Fast forward to today, and Greene’s words again ring true. “Wood” is once again gone, having been released by the team on Feb. 15. The Packers defense, having been thoroughly dominated in surrendering a stunning 579 yards to Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers in a season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss, are again looking for someone who will stand up and rally the troops.
Matthews was only a second-year player at the time of his Super Bowl-turning play. Now, he’s entering his fifth NFL season, just signed a five-year, $66 million extension and is the defense’s unquestioned star.
It … is … time … for Matthews to be that leader again.
“I think it’s just the natural progression of leadership on this team. Obviously the more comfortable I am in this scheme and the longer I’m here, the longer tenured I am, the more I have to take that leadership opportunity. Especially in light of all that has happened in the offseason with Charles Woodson departing, the new contract,” Matthews said. “(With the Packers) showing trust in my leadership and ability on the field, you’re going to see that. Especially in light of the last few years our defense. We’re trying to turn it around and get this thing back to where we were when we had a Super Bowl run.”
Matthews missed four games last season – the Packers went 3-1 in those games, beating Detroit (twice) and Minnesota while losing to the New York Giants – with the chronic hamstring problem that has plagued him since he entered the league. But before last year, he’d missed just two games because of the hamstring; when he pulled it against Arizona on Nov. 4, however, it was more severe than previous instances. The coaches also appeared to take a calculated risk and wait longer to bring him back than maybe they would have at a different point in the schedule.
Nevertheless, Matthews still finished fifth in the NFL in regular-season sacks (13.0), and in 877 total snaps (including playoffs), he finished with 72 tackles, 16 sacks, five pass breakups, two fumbles forced and a fumble recovery. Now, the Packers need him not only to be even more productive, but to stay healthy enough to play all 16 games against a much more challenging regular-season schedule while also picking up that leadership mantle from Woodson, who’s now in Oakland.
“You get more comfortable within the system being a leader. A lot of these young guys look up to you, especially having some personal success myself,” Matthews said. “Kind of being appointed that guy – or at least self-appointed – I’m going to do everything I can to help this defense get to where we need to go and if that means being a little more vocal, running around having some fun then hopefully these guys follow.”
Matthews certainly wasn’t perfect last season – while now-departed Erik Walden looked the worst against the 49ers and their read-option scheme, Matthews didn’t exactly drape himself in glory with his performance that night, either – but he’s the one player on the defense that tilts the field in the Packers’ favor. As the team looks to develop other players who do that, Matthews is the player the Packers defense simply cannot live without, regardless of that 3-1 record while he was sidelined last year.
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