PHILADELPHIA — No lead seemed safe. No player seemed safe.
About the only certainty in the Green Bay Packers’ season opener was that with the game on the line — with the Eagles down seven, driving and seemingly holding all the momentum — Clay Matthews would make a play.
Hadn’t the second-year outside linebacker been doing that all game? Hasn’t he been doing it since he arrived in Green Bay as a first-round pick in 2009?
So, never mind the hamstring pull that had erased most of his training camp. He stayed true to his big-play form by materializing in the hole Michael Vick was hoping to find off left guard with 1:54 left and the Eagles attempting to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Green Bay 42.
Matthews, side by side with inside linebacker Nick Barnett, stopped Vick for no gain. And the Packers, who had led 27-10 late in the third quarter, were able to exhale, having escaped with a 27-20 victory.
“It’s very big,” Matthews said, “especially to start the season on the road, where we haven’t won in 138 years.”
Actually, it’s only 48, the Packers having last won here when they drubbed the Eagles 49-0 in 1962. But really, who’s counting?
On this day, Vick turned back the clock himself. Out of football for two years while serving a federal prison sentence for running an illegal dogfighting ring in his native Virginia, he replaced starter Kevin Kolb in the second half, after Kolb departed the game with a concussion resulting from a second-quarter tackle on a scramble by, naturally, Matthews, who also had two sacks.
Vick, who had made little impact with the Eagles last year, again displayed the skills he had shown earlier in his career, with Atlanta — the speed (he rushed 11 times for 103 yards), the arm (he went 16-for-24 for 175 yards and touchdown), the ability to improvise.
“He can make a play when there’s no play,” cornerback Charles Woodson said, “and he did.”
It was all too familiar to Barnett, who said this episode of the Michael Vick Experience was “definitely still comparable” to the one he had seen when Vick was known only for his on-field exploits, not his off-field infamy.
“He’s still making plays,” Barnett said. “Obviously, he made some plays, had us on our toes a little bit, and did a couple things.”
Vick drove the Eagles 79 yards in nine plays early in the fourth quarter, the last a touchdown pass to Jeremy Maclin on third-and-goal from the 17. Then, after rookie safety Nate Allen intercepted Aaron Rodgers’ overthrow of Donald Driver, Vick whip-cracked the Birds 45 yards in nine plays. An end-zone deflection by safety Nick Collins prevented a touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson on third-and-goal from the 5, and David Akers kicked a 24-yard field goal to make it 27-20 with 5:43 left.
The Packers were forced to punt, and here came Vick again. He ran for 9, then 16. Cullen Jenkins, playing with a hand heavily wrapped after breaking it earlier in the game, sacked him. And Matthews did the same, with his second sack leading to third-and-13 at the Philadelphia 46.
Vick passed to slot receiver Jason Avant for a gain of 12, setting up the fourth-down play. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said it’s “a tough call” as far as knowing what to expect.
“Are they still going to go to the traditional quarterback sneak?” he said. “Or he has the ability to rush the ball to the edge. Now your short-yardage defense takes on different characteristics.”
But Woodson said he and his fellow defenders had a “good feeling” as to what the Eagles might run. And when Matthews was asked whether they guessed right on the play, he chuckled a bit.
Clay Matthews hauls down Kevin Kolb.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
“Come on — guess?” he told a reporter, smiling. “That’s what we study for. We had a high inclination they were going to be running a quarterback sneak. We knew what we were doing. Fortunately, a few guys won their one-on-one battles, and we made a play to get off the field and win the game.”
It wasn’t a conventional quarterback sneak — Vick ran out of the shotgun formation. But it was its equivalent. And as Eagles coach Andy Reid said, “We felt strong about it.”
But the Packers got some penetration, Vick said.
“Things happen so fast when you’re out there, you’ve just got to react,” he added. “I tried to react, but ultimately it was too late.”
And really, there was nowhere to go. Matthews had thrown tight end Brent Celek aside, and was standing in the hole, as was Barnett.
It was the last of seven tackles credited to Matthews. Only teammate Brandon Chillar had as many, and nobody on either team had more. Matthews also had two hurries and a forced fumble, and nearly intercepted Kolb in the second quarter.
Matthews said he was “definitely tired” after seeing so little action during the preseason.
“But,” he added, “I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing from the framework of the defense, and I know what they expect of me and what they want me to do — create pressure, make tackles and just be a wrecking force on that front line. I try to do that, and fortunately I was able to come away with a little bit of success today.”
Woodson alternately called Matthews “a monster” and “a beast.”
“He is a guy that is never going to give up on a play,” Woodson added. “He is the kind of guy that you cannot block with just one guy. He is a guy that shows good speed, and he is going to hunt you down.”
Matthews was also a survivor on a day that saw the Packers’ Ryan Grant (ankle) and Justin Harrell (knee) knocked from the game; McCarthy later said that Harrell’s injury appears to be “significant.” The Eagles lost not only Kolb but Jamaal Jackson (biceps), Leonard Weaver (knee) and Stewart Bradley (concussion) — Jackson and Weaver likely for the season, according to Reid.
But Matthews was still standing at the end — standing in a hole Michael Vick had hoped to find, and making a play.
Same as it ever was.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.