Members of the Green Bay Packers' defense had to enjoy watching tape of the early part of the Week 2 game between the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys.
In preparing for their crack at Jay Cutler on Monday night, they got to see another team put tremendous pressure on the quarterback with a 3-4 defense. Sure, the Bears wound up with an impressive and surprising victory on the road, but it didn't come cheaply. The Cowboys hit Cutler on each of his first seven passes. The Bears stuck with a conventional alignment -- two backs, a tight end and receivers in their normal spots -- and the Cowboys repeatedly exploited it with heavy blitzing inside.
"They challenged (running back) Matt Forte (to help with pass protection), and they brought it and they beat the crap out of (Cutler)," said former Bears guard Tom Thayer, an analyst on the team's radio broadcasts.
How fun must it have been for Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who already has six sacks? His two-week reign of terror includes a hit on Kevin Kolb that opened the door to Michael Vick's career revival.
But the longer Matthews and his teammates watched the tape, the less enthused they had to feel about the chances of treating Cutler as if he were a piñata dangling in the middle of Soldier Field.
After shuffling the offensive line in search for answers to improve Cutler's protection, new Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz finally found the solutions in his playbook. Things changed on the Bears' fourth possession. First, Martz had Cutler throw to running back Chester Taylor in a wide area. Although the play went for no gain, Martz succeeded in slowing down the Cowboys' pass rush.
On the next play, Martz spread the receivers wide, forcing the Cowboys to put their two best pass rushers (linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer) into coverage, and Cutler had time to connect with Devin Hester for a 19-yard gain. From the Dallas 39, the Bears split Taylor and tight end Greg Olsen to Cutler's right, pulling Ware and Spencer from a maximum-blitz look and again putting them into coverage. Cutler then connected with Olsen for a touchdown.
"It's the first time in my experience with the Bears where an offensive coordinator has been the best blocker on the field," Thayer said. "(Martz) puts in these formations where the best pass rushers have coverage responsibilities, and now the Bears are just facing the three down linemen. That is an offensive lineman's best friend by far."
Of course, Matthews remains the worst nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and those paid to block and scheme for them. He is big (6-foot-3 and 260 pounds). He is strong. He is fast. He is instinctive. He is relentless. And he is extremely well coached by Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and linebackers coach Kevin Greene, himself a former NFL pass-rushing terror.
Despite missing most of training camp and the preseason with a hamstring injury he suffered during an intra-squad scrimmage, Matthews registered three sacks in the Packers' season-opening victory at Philadelphia. He proceeded to demonstrate that that was a trend by sacking Trent Edwards three times and roughing him up on other occasions in a win against the Buffalo Bills in Week 2.
With Edwards being replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matthews effectively contributed to the benching of two quarterbacks in the same week.
"He reminds me so much of his dad," Thayer said of former Cleveland Browns linebacker Clay Matthews. "When I watch him rush the passer, and having a chance to have played against his dad, he never gives an offensive blocker a power point to hit him. As soon as you think that you're going to engage, he's twisting his shoulder, he's dropping his shoulder as he's bending his knees. He always (manages) to stay in a real attackable position, and it's hard to be aggressive because he doesn't give you that punch point."
Said former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman and CBS NFL analyst Randy Cross, who got a good look at Matthews because he was assigned to the Green Bay-Buffalo game: "Clay plays at a really high pitch, at a really high pace. That might be the most challenging thing for an offense, because he doesn't have a speed other than flat out."
Capers likes to use multiple fronts. His defense typically concentrates on plugging the middle with a four-man front on first down, then widens out to protect against the screen on second down, and has Matthews rush from all angles on third down.
The idea is to never have Matthews line up directly over a blocker, while also giving him the advantage of rushing against running backs that are almost always going to have a difficult time trying to block him.
"Dom Capers has been doing a great job putting him in very winnable matchups and space to use his athleticism," Thayer said.
Thayer likes the Bears' chances of being able to prevent Matthews from being the dominant force he was against the Eagles and Bills. He expects Martz to again be effective with formations that help minimize the impact of Matthews and Green Bay's other pass rushers. Thayer also anticipates that Martz will "press the issue" of keeping the Packers off-balance by running the ball with Forte and Taylor.
"I think one of the luxuries of playing a home game is at least you're going to have the opportunity to verbally communicate on the line of scrimmage everything that's on your game plan," Thayer said. "When you're trying to communicate in the environment they were playing in in Dallas, you're hoping everybody is in tune with all the signals and all of the instructions they got out of the huddle. (Playing at home and in Martz's scheme) Jay Cutler is finally going to be able to demonstrate to people that he's a really intelligent quarterback because there's a significant amount of verbal (communication) that goes with calling the play and then going to the line of scrimmage and continuing to read the coverage and looking for the best outlet."