YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

For Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, every week is rush week

The second-year pro from USC set a Green Bay rookie record with 10 sacks in 2009 and already has six in two games this season. Not bad for a onetime Trojans walk-on who before his senior year appeared to have little future in football.

September 21, 2010|Sam Farmer

Clay Matthews was once an unpaid intern at NFL Network and was assigned his share of grunt work at the Culver City studios.

So the Green Bay linebacker knows something about making copies.

It's fitting, then, that the former USC standout would follow the best game of his career — a three-sack game against Philadelphia in the opener — with a carbon-copy performance: three more sacks against Buffalo in Week 2.

Matthews is the first player in Packers history to have consecutive three-sack games, and the NFL's first player to do so since Seattle's Patrick Kerney in 2007.

"I think it's well known that quarterbacks don't like to be hit, they want to sit back in the pocket, get hot and make throws," Matthews said in a phone interview Tuesday. "As a pass rusher, you want to get in their face early and often. Get a few hits on them and get them off their game."

He has done that and more. It was he who sacked the Eagles' Kevin Kolb from behind, stripping the ball and driving him into the ground so hard that the quarterback wound up leaving the game (and missing the next week) with a concussion.

"It's unfortunate with Kolb," Matthews said. "Obviously, I was tackling him from behind and there was no malicious intent. . . . I'm not a bad guy. I tried to help him up but he stayed on the ground. I saw a little grass in his facemask, and I went off to celebrate a little bit."

Get used to the visual of Matthews celebrating, because there's likely to be a lot of it this season. He set a franchise rookie record with 10 sacks last season and goes into Monday night's game at Chicago four short of that total in two games.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he believes Matthews belongs in the mix of the league's top five pass rushers, counting him among the likes of Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, Minnesota's Jared Allen, Dallas' DeMarcus Ware and Chicago's Julius Peppers.

Rodgers said he was awed watching Matthews from the sideline in the Buffalo game.

"On one play, Clay just totally bull-rushed and knocked the tackle on his butt," Rodgers said in a podcast interview with Rich Eisen on "He's got that move, the quick duck-under move, around the outside with speed, the spin move, the back inside. . . . A second-year guy with 18 games under his belt? That's impressive to see him make those kind of plays."

The Packers traded up in the 2009 draft to select Matthews with the 26th pick, seeing him as a potential key player in their transition from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense under new coordinator Dom Capers. That plan worked beautifully, as the franchise made an astounding statistical turnaround. The 2009 Packers finished second in total defense and first against the run, after they were 20th and 26th in those categories in 2008.

That change was almost as stunning as Matthews' transformation, a onetime lanky USC walk-on who didn't work his way into the Trojans starting lineup until his final season. He started eight games in five years. He was nearly 100 pounds lighter in high school. Despite rumors and speculation to the contrary, he has denied taking performance-enhancing drugs to make the adjustment. (His fellow former USC linebacker and last season's NFL defensive player of the year, Brian Cushing, is halfway through a four-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance.)

Matthews, whose father, Clay, and uncle, Bruce, had long and distinguished NFL careers, attributes his dramatic physical change in part to genetics — "If you look at the Matthews throughout history, we've always been late bloomers," he said — and of course hard work.

No one at NFL Network could have predicted Matthews would develop into an NFL player, much less a dominant one, from meeting him that summer after his redshirt freshman season at USC.

His main responsibility was cutting out articles and making copies, often for anchor Derrin Horton, who remembers him as friendly, punctual, diligent, conscientious and, oh, one more thing:

"He had a crew cut," Horton said.

Now, Matthews looks like a super-sized Kid Rock. With long blond hair that spills over his shoulder pads, he is the mane man in Green Bay's defense, who wears his locks up during the week and lets them down on game day "when my alter-ego comes out."

"I've heard them all — Thor, Fabio, Sunshine, you can go down the list," he said. "I haven't seen any wigs, but I think that's something we should probably get going on. I remember at 'SC they had [Troy] Polamalu wigs, back when I was a fan. We should get some blond rocker wigs. That's a pretty good idea."

As a publicity stunt, a shampoo company recently insured for $1 million the flowing hair of Polamalu, Pittsburgh's All-Pro safety. Matthews thinks he can go one better.

"I'm trying for $2 million," he joked.

What a copycat.

Los Angeles Times Articles