Packers’ move for rookie OLB Matthews paying off

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson isn’t much of an

impulse buyer. He rarely makes big splashes in free agency. And if

he makes a trade on draft day, he typically is headed downward,

acquiring more picks to replenish his roster.

So, it was somewhat startling when Thompson broke character back

in April, trading up for an additional first-round draft pick and

using it on USC linebacker Clay Matthews III.

It’s beginning to look like one of the more shrewd moves

Thompson has made during his tenure in Green Bay.

“I thought at the time it was an unusual move for Ted,”

quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “But I realized they must have

seen something special from him.”

Now, everyone else can see it, too: With seven sacks this

season, Matthews is tied with Washington’s Brian Orakpo for the

most sacks among rookies.

Throw in a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries – including

a jaw-dropping play at Minnesota in October when he wrestled the

ball away from Adrian Peterson and returned it for a touchdown –

and Matthews is a leading candidate for defensive rookie of the

year.

Matthews had a pair of sacks in Monday night’s victory over

Baltimore, earning NFC defensive player of the week honors.

“It’s not just me out there, obviously,” Matthews said. “It’s

a whole team effort. But it’s definitely gratifying, seeing that

your hard work is paying off and people are rewarding you with such

accolades and what not. But, like I said, it’s an overall team

game. If we weren’t winning, we wouldn’t be getting these

awards.”

And with the Packers (8-4) in the thick of the NFC wild-card

race, they could be counting on another big day from Matthews in

Sunday’s game at Chicago.

Green Bay’s top four defensive linemen are on the injury report

this week, and their availability for Sunday is unclear. But even

without the usual cast of characters tying up blockers in front of

him, Matthews still could have opportunities to make big plays

against a struggling Bears offensive line.

“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 head 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.”

After being hindered by a hamstring injury in training camp,

Matthews began playing on passing downs once the regular season

started. He became the Packers’ full-time starter in mid-October

and is now a key cog for one of the league’s up-and-coming

defenses.

Matthews’ father, uncle and grandfather all played in the NFL,

giving him a background that helped his transition from college.

Still, Matthews acknowledges having some of the same problems most

rookies go through, struggling to learn a new defensive system and

making mistakes early on.

“If you come in here with that right mindset and you’re willing

to learn and put it all together, I think good things will

happen,” Matthews said.

He won over teammates and coaches with his attitude – which

wasn’t necessarily surprising, given the fact that he originally

was a walk-on at USC.

“The thing that struck me first about Clay was he just had the

right demeanor for a rookie,” Rodgers said. “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 One 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.”

McCarthy said Matthews fit in right away.

“I like the way he comes to work,” McCarthy said. “He’s the

same guy every day. Your rookie year there’s always an adjustment

that you go through. Do they fit into the locker room? Is he

accepted in the locker room? Every rookie goes through it. And he’s

made a pretty seamless transition here to our program. I appreciate

that, I’m excited about that, because I think he’s going to have

great days ahead of him.”