Still more stuff from the Nike Equipment Summit - an exclusive interview with Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews(notes), the second-year defensive star who currently ranks second in the NFL with 12.5 sacks despite playing through a shin injury over the last few weeks. Of course, excellence in football is nothing new in the Mathews family - Clay's grandfather, father, and uncle all played in the league, and little brother Casey is ripping it up as a draft prospect pass rusher for the University of Oregon. When we talked, Matthews' mind was on the Packers' playoff chances most of all, but he went off the grid to deal with a few different subjects.
Shutdown Corner: You've had two major coaching forces in your life as far as the defensive fronts you've been successful in - Pete Carroll at USC and Dom Capers at Green Bay. Can you talk a bit about the influence each coach had on you?
Clay Matthews: Well, I really couldn't get on the field in the 4-3 scheme we had at ‘SC. There were some great linebackers ahead of me at the time, but fortunately Pete, the way I'd been playing going into my last, they had to kind of make a position for me. Kind of a hybrid, outside linebacker, stand-up d-end. I didn't know a whole lot about rushing the passer, or what I was doing out there, but it was very similar to playing down on the line like a SAM in a 4-3. So, it worked out for me, and obviously I had a lot to learn, but I was able to showcase a little bit of what I was able to do.
And Green Bay obviously took a chance on me, and it worked out for the limited time I showed. But Dom's-he knew what he saw on that film, and he's kind of put me in the same exact position that I was in when Pete played me at that "Leo" hybrid defensive end, so it's worked out tremendously. They ask you to do a lot, but I look forward to the challenge. But you get to do a multitude of things, rush the passer, drop into coverage, play man-to-man coverage, and I think I can do them all."
SC: What did you learn from Carroll?
CM: I think he just prepared us to get ready for this level. I think that's why we've had so much success today with ‘SC guys coming out, and kind of transitioning to the game a lot sooner than others is the fact that, obviously he was a pro coach, and teaching a college program where you're the only thing in L.A.. With there not being a professional team, it's really helped us out, and he has a pro-style defense. Everything that he taught us helped make the transition that much easier.
SC: You're going up against the New England Patriots this Sunday, and it's a different offense that it was even a couple seasons ago - less deep ball, more fast break with specific player positioning and route precision. What challenges do they present to a defense?
CM: It's going to be difficult. They've got a bunch of speedsters, running around the middle. Guys who aren't orthodox when you look at them, but they're making plays out there and we're going to have to get after them. Obviously Tom Brady(notes) is doing a heck of a job out there, making the plays and making a real bid at MVP. They're a great team. You got the number-one offense going against the number-one defense right now, so it should be a fun game for us.
CM: I just asked him how he's feeling on Monday when he came in. Obviously it takes a little while to get over a concussion. We're hoping to have him, I'm not sure what the process is. I think you have to get an independent doctor to clear, but he came back after Wednesday or Thursday of his initial concussion. I'm not sure how the concussion process goes if you have multiple ones. But we look to have him back, and hopefully he's back for New England because we could use him, he's a fantastic player, and helped us get to where we are today.
SC: You're noted for your pure pass-rushing above all, but you drop back quite a bit. Do you think people underestimate your ability to cover short areas?
CM: I hope so. I think I'm not just a pure pass-rusher, I think I can do whatever I'm asked. If they have me drop into coverage, cover tight ends, run verticals with slot receivers, I feel like I can do it all and be successful at doing it. So whatever they ask, I'm up for the challenge. And I feel like I can do it all."
SC: What's been the biggest transition from college to pro in the personnel you face?
CM: Everybody's a professional now. Everybody's great. You know, you go against one or two guys who you might face, who might end up in the NFL, but now everybody's in the NFL for a reason. They're all good. Obviously the speed and how big people are really changes, and you have to learn to adapt to that, and kind of work with it. It's difficult, but I mean the sooner you can learn to deal with these bigger guys, the better you can be.
SC: Do you think about the Defensive Player of the Year award, and the fact that you have to be considered for it?
CM: You know, you don't really look at it too much. Obviously, if you can help your team win each and every week, your goal is to obviously get to the playoffs and hopefully make a run at the Super Bowl. So right now, we're trying to win some games. Anything that I can do to help my team out, and the accolades will come at the end of the year. That really comes with a good team. The players around you, the coaching staff, it's not just one person. It's a collective. It's your team playing collectively. We'll see where it goes. There's a lot of great players out there right now who are making their bids for it, and I'm just hoping we as a team can make our bid for winning a couple of more games and hopefully making a playoff run.
SC: You obviously have a huge football family going back to your grandfather, but you were a walk-on at USC. Did that genealogy help you at all growing up? Was football a constant foundation of your life?
CM: Fortunately for me, I was surrounded by the game from an early age. Going to my father and uncle's football games, kind of seeing how they were (inaudible)...And I think that's been a transition easy, but I guess for a normal kid who's not surrounded by it as much, it's just really working hard, and putting yourself into position to excel. It's kind of eliminating the outside distractions, getting yourself on the right path in the classroom, studying film, working out, and just making sure you can succeed.
I didn't have an easy road. I walked on at USC, and just kind of kept, you know, grinding and working hard, and finally it paid off and I never looked back.