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It seems so ridiculous now -- or maybe it's a sign that the USC football team should actually have been the 33rd NFL franchise in the Pete Carroll years.
But how odd is it that Clay Matthews, who is playing football with the pursuit ability of Ray Lewis, started only eight games in five years at Southern Cal?
Matthews, Green Bay's pass-rushing outside linebacker, enters Monday night's showdown in Chicago between the twin 2-0 Bears and Packers leading the NFL with six sacks. He had three apiece against the Eagles and Bills. He's 17 away from setting the NFL single-season record. ("Come on,'' he told me from Green Bay. "It's two weeks.'') According to the redoubtable Bob McGinn's film study in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Matthews has been double-teamed on 42 percent of Packer defensive pass plays so far. And he's still killing it.
I'm not a big fan of comparing young players to guys who've done it for years. And I don't mean that you shouldn't say, "The way Matthews chases down players reminds me of Lewis,'' or, "I see some Emmitt Smith when I watch the Heisman winner, Mark Ingram.'' I mean it's silly to say Matthews is going to turn into the next Ray Lewis in pursuit, because we need to see a much larger sample size. As Matthews says, "Come on. It's two weeks.'' I'd say, "Come on. He's playing his 19th NFL game Monday night.'' Greatness in the NFL is so much about staying power.
But when I see the ability to beat blockers to the outside and inside, and when I see the speed in the open field, Matthews looks rare to me. Against Philadelphia in Week 1, lining up at left OLB, outside tackle Winston Justice's right shoulder, he steamed around Justice, avoided a weak attempt at a chip block by the Eagle back, and set out to chase down Kevin Kolb. He made up about eight yards on Kolb, slightly reminiscent of Lewis chasing down Tiki Barber from behind in the Super Bowl 10 years ago -- though, to be fair, Kolb was looking to throw part of the time.
When Matthews tackled him from behind, he stripped the ball and pinned Kolb's arms to his side so the QB couldn't shield his fall; the resulting concussion led the Eagles on the strange journey to the quarterback change to Michael Vick. Against Buffalo last week, lined up on the right side this time, outside left tackle Demetrius Bell, Matthews blew past Bell, muscled into the backfield and leveled Trent Edwards for his third sack of the day.
"The thing that's surprised everyone,'' I said to him this week, "is your closing speed.''
"How could you know when I start eight games in a five-year tenure at USC?'' he said. "My whole career's been like that, really -- a little unknown. I didn't start 'til my senior year in high school, didn't start 'til a quarter of the way into my senior year in college. I've always been fast. I've always had that closing speed. Now that I know the defense well here, I can put that burst and the change of direction I have to good use when I go after the quarterback.''
He said he "very much'' models his game after Lewis. "Lots of times, I'm running on fumes out there, because I have nothing left in the tank. Sometimes, if a play's 50 yards down the field, I'm still going after it. I don't care. Who knows? Maybe it comes back to you and you can get involved and make a positive play. But sometimes I get so tired I've got to come out for a play or two. I just think you've got to go all-out every single snap, because you never know when you're going to have a chance to make a play.''
Matthews, son of 19-year NFL veteran Clay Matthews and nephew of 19-year NFL veteran Bruce Matthews, had no Division I scholarship offers coming out of high school in Southern California. He was 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds as a high school senior. "I had places like UC-Davis, Cal-San Luis Obispo interested. And maybe I was crazy, but I thought I could walk on and play at USC. With my rich family tradition, I don't know ... I just thought I was supposed to be a football player. My grandfather was, my father was, my uncle was. It was the family business. I just figured I'd be the next one in the family to do it.''
The amazing thing was, it took some willpower for it to happen at all. He dressed his freshman year at USC, and the coaches -- including Carroll -- asked him three or four times in 2004 blowouts if he wanted to enter games in the fourth quarter. If he had, he would have been ineligible for a fifth year. Matthews figured he could make more of an impact as a bigger player down the line, so every time he was asked, he refused.
Had he not ... who knows? Maybe he never gets a real NFL shot. And he certainly wouldn't have been a high draft choice. Anyway, it took time to mature at USC. By the time he did, he was a fifth-year senior, and he had to force his way into the lineup on a loaded front seven.
The NFL was full of skeptics, and he lasted until the 26th pick of the 2009 draft. The Packers wanted pass rushers to fit new defensive coordinator Dom Capers' aggressive 3-4 scheme, and GM Ted Thompson liked the 6-3, 240-pound Matthews' speed.
"I didn't even know where Green Bay was on the map when they drafted me,'' Matthews said. "To say I knew Dom Capers and his defense, I didn't. But when I got here, I saw it'd be a good fit for me. I don't like waiting for plays to develop in the 4-3, which is what you have to do on the outside. You're stuck in a box. In the 3-4, I just react quicker. It suits my skills.''
This offseason, he finally started listening to his father, a good pass rusher (but no threat to win a sack title) in his NFL career. Clay the father is an assistant high school coach now, and the two would go out and do repetitions of spin moves and work on ways to neutralize the hands of offensive linemen. Pass rushing is lots of little things. Clay the son was hardheaded for a while about listening to his father. "Now,'' he said, "I look up to him and take his advice on a lot of things. He was pretty good.''
Capers is moving Matthews from his starting left side to the right, and even over the middle on some snaps. He rushes and covers, and he doesn't back away from playing the run. He drops with tight ends and backs mostly, but with the very occasional wideout, too. Capers knows he can use Matthews anywhere, and that's going to be important as this season progresses, because offensive coordinators will be looking for him on every snap, trying to get a chip or a double-team on him.
On Monday night, he knows the Bears might do with Jay Cutler what they did last week against Dallas -- make him get rid of the ball quickly so he doesn't get buried by Matthews behind a suspect offensive line. So be it, Matthews says.
"Not much you can do if they're going to take three-step drops and just get rid of it,'' he said. "If that happens, hopefully we get some picks on the back end. We've been working together pretty well, the pressure up front and the DBs covering.''
Six sacks in two weeks, obviously, is a ridiculous pace. There's no guarantee of anything in football, never mind the quirky way that sacks sometimes come in bunches. "Sometimes when you get sacks, the stars have to align,'' Matthews said. "There's no reason to think I can't keep it up, but if I end up this year with six sacks, you won't see a different approach. I'll still be the same player, playing the same way.''
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