A bright spot in the otherwise dreary news coming out of Green Bay following the Packers’ Monday night loss at Minnesota is rookie linebacker Clay Matthews, who stripped Vikings’ running back Adrian Peterson late in the second quarter and ran the ball back for a 42-yard, game-tying touchdown – his first NFL score.
Matthews also recorded two solo tackles Monday night, and was an outside presence on the defensive line as the Packers held Peterson, the league’s leading rusher in 2008, to just 55 yards.
“I thought we did a fantastic job,” Matthews told the Star Tribune following the game. “The thing about him is you really can’t let him get going. … We did a good job of shutting him down.”
Unfortunately, the Packers did nothing to shut down Minnesota’s passing attack and shot themselves in their collective feet with costly turnovers and too many penalties, leading to a 23-30 defeat.
Still, Matthews, the second of the Packers’ 2009 first-round draft picks behind defensive tackle B.J. Raji, is starting to make his mark defensively. He began the season backing up Brady Poppinga at right outside linebacker, but is now rotating in for about half of those reps. He recorded his first career sack in the Packers’ embarrassing home loss to Cincinnati, knocking Carson Palmer for a loss of nine in Week 2, and has five total tackles on the season – all of them solo.
Matthews earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior at USC in 2008. He appeared in 50 career games, including 10 starts and four consecutive Rose Bowls and was selected as USC’s Co-Special Teams Player of the Year in each of his final three seasons.
Matthews path to the NFL was not a typical one. A third-generation NFL player, Matthews is the son of Cleveland Browns’ linebacker Clay Matthews Jr., who played 19 seasons before retiring in 1993, and the grandson of Clay Sr., who played defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s.
That kind of pedigree might make you think he’s led a charmed life, but Matthews had to fight from the beginning of his college career as a 205-pound walk-on at USC.
“I ended up at USC because plain and simple, I didn’t have any offers coming out of high school,” Matthews said. “I was undersized as a junior and I didn’t even start and my dad was the D-coordinator. That alone speaks volumes about where I have come from. As a senior, I put on some weight and grew a couple of inches, but I was only recruited by (junior colleges) and I-AA schools.”
After spending three seasons as primarily a special-teams contributor for the Trojans, Matthews cracked the starting lineup on a talented defense as a senior in 2008, opening up the final 10 games at right end. He earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors with 56 tackles, including nine for losses, and 4.5 sacks, more than doubling his combined stats from his first three seasons.
“He’s always on his feet,” Packers GM Ted Thompson said of Matthews when he was drafted. “He has great hips and balance. He can use his hands effectively against offensive linemen and running backs. He can run. He had a great 40 at the combine. He can move in space. He can do the things that anybody looks for in a defensive player.
“And we did study the USC boys quite a bit just because there were a lot of them. Even when you are watching somebody else, all of a sudden you go, ‘Was that No. 47 again?’ He just makes a lot of plays.”
As an outside linebacker, Matthews is an integral part of Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense and was brought in to make big plays. He’s starting to show that potential, and it will be fun to watch him continue to develop as the season continues.