"These type of awards come obviously when you're winning and the overall team effort," Matthews said on Wednesday, two days after recording two sacks, six tackles and a forced fumble against Baltimore. "It's not just me out there making plays out there. It's a whole team effort. It's definitely gratifying seeing that your hard work is paying off and people are rewarding you with such accolades. It's an overall team game. If we weren't winning, we wouldn't be getting these awards."
To say Matthews has been running circles around opposing offensive linemen would be true in a literal sense. He's become the Packers' top pass rusher, not only because of his athletic ability but because he's relentless. Against the Ravens, quarterback Joe Flacco ran in a circle to escape Matthews, finally getting away when Flacco's circuitous scramble brought Matthews back toward tackle Jared Gaither, who he initially beat at the line of scrimmage.
"I like to think I give everyone fits or trouble when I'm out there," Matthews said.
Matthews leads the Packers and is tied with Washington's Brian Orakpo for the NFL's rookie lead with seven sacks, and has added three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and six passes defensed. The three recoveries are tied for second in the NFL.
After playing a reserve role for the first four games, Matthews is emerging as a top candidate for defensive rookie of the year with Orakpo, Houston's Brian Cushing (a former USC teammate; tied for fifth in the NFL in tackles) and Buffalo's Jairus Byrd (tied for NFL lead with eight interceptions).
"I think he's an excellent pick. He's playing well," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "You can't argue with the athletic ability, the versatility he gives you at that position. That's what you're looking for. The ability to put his hand down and rush the passer. Also to play all the different combinations, the pressure packages and the cover packages. I think he's off to an excellent start. When you have a rookie win the defensive player of the week, I think that speaks for itself. We're excited about his start."
Matthews is the NFC's first rookie to win the award this year. The only Packer to lead the team in sacks as a rookie was the great Tim Harris, with eight as a fourth-round pick in 1986.
Matthews is late bloomer and prodigy all in one. At USC, he only started the final 10 games of his collegiate career. A late growth spurt and unstoppable work ethic turned Matthews from special-teams star to defensive stalwart for the Trojans and gave him a chance to follow in the footsteps of his father, Clay Matthews, who played linebacker for 19 seasons.
"There's definitely been some bumps," Matthews said. "It hasn't been too smooth, but with my family background and just the overall program which I went to and just my mind-set, I felt it was going to be a smooth transition coming in here. I expected it to be rough and football to be 24-7, I expected the rigors of this business. If you come in here with that right mind-set and you're willing to learn and put it all together, I think good things will happen."
Matthews has four sacks in his last four games, but he wasn't drafted purely because of his ability to rush the passer. When general manager Ted Thompson traded a second-round pick and two third-round selections to New England to acquire the Patriots' 26th overall pick to get Matthews, Thompson envisioned a do-it-all linebacker who would be the fulcrum of the new 3-4 defense. That means playing the run and dropping into coverage as well as going after the quarterback. Matthews has been all of that, joining Greg Jennings as the lone high-impact rookies to emerge from Thompson's five drafts.
"I thought at the time it was an unusual move for Ted but I realized they must have seen something special from him," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "The thing that struck me first about Clay was he just had the right demeanor for a rookie. He came in here, he kept his mouth shut. He just wanted to play and play hard and wait for his opportunity. It didn't come right away. He wasn't starting Day 1 and I think he continued to work hard and he's shown himself to be a very solid player, a good professional. He keeps week in and week out and he's really helped our team out a bunch."
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