Another year, another Green Bay Packer setting the standard on defense.
Following in the lofty footsteps of veteran CB Charles Woodson, second-year ball-of-fire OLB Clay Matthews was a runaway selection this season as the Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers of America Defensive Player of the Year.
Think Dom Capers might know what he's doing?
"We're obviously more comfortable in the second season in this scheme, as you can tell by us finishing second in points allowed," Matthews told PFW less than 24 hours after making life miserable for Eagles ORT Winston Justice in another electrifying effort in Green Bay's 21-16 wild-card victory over the Eagles.
"Everybody has really bought in to what we're doing. We had a great run last year, coming up just short, and we learned from our past mistakes. The younger guys have stepped up, and the veterans as well.
"The players we put out there all over the field are fantastic athletes. We've got playmakers across the board."
Matthews was fantastic from the get-go this season, with six sacks the first two weeks (three each against the Eagles and Bills), the most ever by a Packer to start a season.
After finishing fourth in the league with 13.5 sacks and registering a career-high 60 tackles, two forced fumbles, an interception for a touchdown and four passes defensed, he became the first Packer since RB John Brockington (1971-72) to be selected to the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons in the league.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Matthews is the first NFL player since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 to register double-digit sacks and a defensive TD in each of his first two seasons.
A relentless force on every play in which he is involved, the former USC walk-on clearly loves what he's doing for a living.
"I have a great time out there," Matthews said. "This game is something that's very special to me, to just be able to hit people and make plays and have fans from all over cheering me on.
"Dom's defense allows me to turn it loose in every aspect — rushing the passer ... stopping the run ... dropping into coverage. It's full go all the time, and that fits me perfectly."
Matthews was considered far from a perfect football fit in high school and college, however, and the underdog mentality that spurred him on to greater heights at both levels remains a driving force.
"Absolutely," Matthews said. "In high school, I didn't start until my junior year. I had no Division I scholarships, and I did not start at USC until the fourth game my senior year. That's why I always work hard, making sure the guy who's on my tail doesn't catch up to me.
"I always feel like I have something to prove."
The Packers this season proved to be one of the more resilient teams in recent memory, overcoming one of the more severe injury epidemics in league history, with six starters going down for the count, as well as numerous key reserves.
"It would have really been easy to throw in the towel, especially around the midpoint of the season when we were losing some games and people were going down left and right," said Matthews, who had his share of ailments with a nagging hamstring injury early in the season and a lingering shin injury later in the year.
"It's just a testament to the players and the coaches for keeping us on the straight and narrow."
One Packers coach, in particular, who has helped Matthews keep his high-energy act together is linebackers coach Kevin Greene, a former highly regarded pass rusher at the pro level who coaches with the same intensity he displayed as a player.
"I've been very lucky to have great coaching throughout my career, starting with my dad at the peewee level and Ken Norton at USC, and to now have a guy like Kevin — who has finished No. 1 in sacks before and was such a dominant force for countless years — be so instrumental in my development is something special."
With his practice routine modified much of the season, Matthews rebounded physically down the stretch, entering the playoffs feeling as good as he had all year.
"I feel great," Matthews said. "There was a period of 4-5 weeks earlier this season where it was just really tough getting through the week. But I finally felt like I was able to really turn it loose the last three games and that I was peaking at just the right time."
After a season full of highlight-reel plays, Matthews was asked if there was one that stuck out in his mind.
"I'm not sure if there's one play that I can think of," Matthews said. "Obviously, getting sacks is a nice thing. But what I remember more than anything are those games where I break my opponent's will after battling him, play in and play out, for four quarters.
"I love that feeling when, even though you might have zero tackles, you know you did everything you possibly could for 60 minutes to help your team."
Pro Football Weekly's annual awards issue (dated Jan. 23) is on sale now, featuring All-NFL, All-Conference and All-Rookie teams, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Offensive Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, Most Improved Player of the Year, Executive of the Year and Assistant Coach of the Year — all selected by PFW editors and contributors along with members of the Professional Football Writers of America — as well as a Golden Toe Award selected by PFW editors only. The print edition also contains a preview of the draft outlook for the first four teams to make selections in April, as well as previews of the two conference championship games. The print edition is available at retail outlets around the country and also online at PFWstore.com , where you can purchase a print copy or an electronic (PDF) version.