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Packers' Matthews can no longer be ignored; 10 things to watch

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.''

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit

Last year the Lions were 29th in the league in sacks. This year, after two weeks, they're tied for first, with 10. One reason is Suh, the leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year who has two sacks himself. But he's drawn so much double-teaming because of his disruptive presence that others on the line have been free to attack the quarterback. If the Lions are to have a chance this week against Minnesota, Suh has to cave in the right side of the Viking offensive line and allow other rushers to get to Brett Favre. His performance in the first two weeks seems to show he's up for it. "He's the most polished rookie I've ever seen,'' linemate Kyle Vanden Bosch told me.

Backup San Diego back Mike Tolbert gets thrust into the lineup at Seattle due to Ryan Mathews' high ankle sprain, and it's one of the great matchups of the weekend. The Seahawks have been terrific against the run so far (2.0 yards per opponents' rush), while Tolbert has rushed for a gaudy 6.0 yards per attempt (18 carries, 108 yards, two TDs). Tolbert's predicted rushing line at Seattle:

Rashad Butler, OT, Houston (No. 78)

With the league's suspension of stalwart left tackle Duane Brown for violating the substance-abuse policy, Houston turns to Butler, who will be making his first career start (in his fifth year), opposite DeMarcus Ware. "I'm excited about the opportunity,'' Butler said. You have to wonder if it's a nervous excited or a confident excited. A couple of years ago, Ware had 20 sacks and 20 quarterback hits in a season, and he's got to be licking his chops at playing a third tackle in a game the Cowboys have to have. Butler's not as quick-footed as Brown, but is a good run-blocker. Coach Gary Kubiak is sure to give Butler help with a tight end or fullback Vonta Leach on passing plays.

1. The Lions to make it much closer than Vegas thinks. I am no gambler, nor am I a threat to ever make money in Sin City. But making Minnesota a double-digit favorite over St. Olaf right now seems a stretch, and doing it against the Lions -- with a very dangerous defensive front -- seems like a matador holding the red cape in front of the bull. I don't get it, particularly with Vikings receivers Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian at less than 100 percent. And I don't care if the Lions' quarterback is Shaun Hill or Benny Hill, Favre is going to get knocked around Sunday.

2. Bryan Bulaga taking the Packers' left-tackle job for good ... and trying to keep Julius Peppers out of Aaron Rodgers' grill. Bulaga lasted 'til the 23rd overall pick in April, but Green Bay GM Ted Thompson is thrilled he has him now. With left tackle Chad Clifton in clear decline, look for Bulaga to either start Monday night or get plenty of work.

3. The Larry Fitzgerald-Nnamdi Asomugha duel. Two teams fighting to stay in contention early, and the most interesting thing about the game is this scintillating matchup between two of the 20 best players in football. The shame of the current scheduling format is that a great player like Fitzgerald sees Asomugha and Darrelle Revis once every four years during the regular season. That's why this one might be worth DVRing -- and, if you're the CBS crew doing the game, putting an iso camera on the duel as much as possible.

4. The QB shuffle. It's Week 3, and Charlie Batch, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jimmy Clausen, Seneca Wallace, Bruce "Why Doesn't Anyone Compare Me To Jim Plunkett?'' Gradkowski, Michael Vick and Shaun Hill are in the starting lineups. And Max Hall is warming up in the Arizona bullpen.

5. The Vick story. On Sundays, I sit in the NBC viewing room at 30 Rock with the Football Night in America crew and watch as much of as many games as we can. There are five late-afternoon games Sunday. Sorry, other four; you're getting short shrift. Philadelphia-Jacksonville will get most of my attention.

6. The Cowboys story. They've been their maddeningly mercurial and inconsistent selves, and there's no safety net at Houston, where the Texans look like what the Cowboys were supposed to look like all season. For the record, for those of you hoping Wade Phillips walks the plank after another loss: If the Cowboys won't jettison an ice-cold kid kicker, what makes you think Jerry Jones will fire his head coach after 12 quarters?

7. The graying of Brett Favre. Favre has to make do with less than he had last year now that the Vikes failed to land Vincent Jackson and with Berrian and Harvin medical questions for the foreseeable future. My advice: Favre should get to know Greg Camarillo very, very well. That's his safety net.

8. Vincent Jackson getting used to watching the games on TV. I guess it shouldn't be too much of a shock that Jackson's still a Charger. You just don't cross A.J. Smith, even if Smith's decision to not trade Jackson probably cost the Chargers significant draft-pick value. But the emotions are so raw now that I'd be surprised if Smith makes a lesser deal at the Oct. 19 trading deadline.

9. Rex Ryan's decision on Braylon Edwards. Ryan's not much of a political animal. All he knows is he's got a big game against Miami Sunday night, the Jets have lost three in a row to the Dolphins, and the Miami offense is just about the only one that can put points up on the Jets D. And now, already without Santonio Holmes for the third straight game, Ryan has to figure out how to score enought points to win the game while also trying to mollify the MADD people (and lots of regular citizens, too) who want Braylon to sit for four quarters after his Tuesday DUI arrest. My guess is Ryan sits Edwards for the first quarter and takes the heat for it. He's got big shoulders.

10. The crowd in Tampa. The Pittsburgh-Tampa Bay game didn't sell out, resulting in a blackout locally. I know the economy's in the dumper, and I know the Tampa area has been very hard hit. But if fans are not going to come out to see a totally unexpected 2-0 Bucs squad play a Steelers team that travels better than any other team in the NFL, just when are they coming to see the Bucs play?

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