This hasn't been Clay Matthews' easiest season. Each week, the Green Bay Packers linebacker has been stretched, forced to treat the football field like his personal classroom.
There's been a slow start. A position change. Nagging injuries. One thing after another, Matthews has handled adversity this season.
Yet, there he was Tuesday night, receiving a familiar honor. For the fifth time, Matthews was voted a Pro Bowler. The distinction followed high praise from Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
"I think Clay has probably had his best year, in my opinion," McCarthy said.
His coach's compliment was relayed to him Tuesday afternoon. Best season of his career? Matthews thought about it.
"This season has required the most out of me as far as learning and playing across the board," Matthews said, "but I think there's a lot of room for improvement in my game."
There certainly was room for improvement early this season, when Matthews had just one sack through the Packers' first six games. Now, he's heating up.
Matthews has 10 sacks this fall. More than half — 5 1/2 — have come in the past three games. It's the type of production expected from Matthews, whose four double-digit sack seasons tie a franchise record with Reggie White and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.
Still, nothing's easy.
Matthews' newest challenge is learning how to lead when teammates didn't designate him as a leader. When the Packers voted for playoff captains last week, Matthews wasn't among the six chosen. Green Bay's two defensive captains — outside linebacker Julius Peppers and safety Morgan Burnett — have been with the team as many years combined as Matthews.
When asked whether he was motivated by any perceived snub Tuesday, Matthews diffused any potential controversy.
"I think it's like the Electoral College," he joked. "I think I might have won popular votes, but they put it together and Morgan and Julius got it. So I don't know. Hanging chads, who knows?"
Then his tone turned serious.
"I'm going to be honest with you, the captains that were elected are captains on this team," Matthews said, "but just because I don't have a 'C' on my chest doesn't mean I'm not a captain. I go out there and make the plays in which I make, that I've made over the past six years. I'm going to keep doing it moving forward, and you'll get some of this Sunday as well."
The Packers need Matthews to be at his productive, disruptive best Sunday when they host the Detroit Lions in the NFC North title game. The Lions rank in the NFL's bottom 10 — No. 23 — with 43 sacks allowed this season. When Green Bay played in Detroit earlier this season, it sacked quarterback Matthew Stafford twice.
The Packers are tied for eighth in the league with 39 sacks this season. Matthews leads the way. Captain or not, his play directly impacts the defense.
"I know my voice is heard out there," Matthews said. "I know these guys rally around me the way I play, the way I talk out there."
Matthews has been more than a pass rusher this season.
His 42 tackles are the second-highest total of his career, behind only his 54 when he was named NFC defensive player of the year by the Sporting News in 2010. His eight defended passes also are second-most in his career.
For all the challenges of changing positions at the season's midway point — and all the hesitancy he had initially — Matthews knows it's given him the opportunity to be a complete player.
"I am happy to do whatever they ask of me," Matthews said. "Our defense has responded well from the switch, and we're continuing to improve."
His numbers indicate the move to inside linebacker sparked a midseason turnaround. Matthews has 7 1/2 sacks in the seven games he's lined up in the middle. He's made plays all over the field, sideline to sideline.
Matthews doesn't think the move was a jump start, no matter what the numbers suggest. Big plays come in bunches, he said. Sooner or later, he was bound to produce.
"Sometimes, I've played games where I've been shut out across the board, and I've had games where you finish with 2 1/2 sacks like this past week," Matthews said. "It kind of is what it is. The only thing as a man, you've got to go home and ask yourself, 'Did you give it up that day? Did you give everything that you had? Did you bring that same level of intensity that you've brought in the past?'
"And if you can go home and say that, whether you have zero sacks or three, four — whatever it might be — then you'll be OK with yourself."
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