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Das Sack Machine

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Matthews shines at inside linebacker (3:30)

Eric Allen breaks down why Clay Matthews has been so successful in his transition to inside linebacker for the Packers. (3:30)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's November 9 Out Issue. Subscribe today!

HUSTLING THROUGH A twisty corridor deep inside Lambeau Field, Clay Matthews strides toward the players' parking lot with the chilling, outta-my-way intensity he normally aims at quarterbacks. The Pro Bowler's explanation for racing off after this Friday practice includes a bit of breaking news: He's trying to make a last-second appointment with his -- gasp -- hairdresser. A Packers employee and a reporter trail the linebacker, and the news stops all in their tracks, including Matthews. He massages the striped wool cap covering his iconic blond locks and imagines the apocalyptic-level response this news might inspire in Hollywood, on Madison Avenue and especially here in Green Bay, where just yesterday the local TV news led with a segment about stores selling out of the new Clay Matthews Christmas tree ornament.

Matthews spins around and throws up a hand -- wait. Just a trim, he clarifies with a chuckle. A little light grooming in preparation for his infant son Clay IV's baptism in California, during the Packers' bye week.

For the past seven seasons, Matthews' trademark tresses have been everywhere: from a cameo a cappella battle this summer vs. the evil Das Sound Machine in Pitch Perfect 2, to the NFL sack leaders list this fall. Before Week 5, there was even a decent facsimile of Matthews' locks streaking across the practice field in St. Louis: The Rams prepped for their game at Lambeau by having scout-team linebacker Daren Bates don a Christina Aguilera -- style wig to help quarterback Nick Foles and the St. Louis offense identify Matthews' whereabouts. (For good measure, this season Matthews has also added a beard that, honestly, makes him look like a cross between Vincent van Gogh and Yukon Cornelius.)

Even with these follicle clues and Bates' method acting, the Rams couldn't keep track of Matthews, who in the past year has made the unprecedented switch from edge-rushing specialist to do-it-all inside linebacker. Terrorized from every spot on the field, Foles completed just 11 of 30 passes and threw four picks while being sacked three times and hit 14, including a gruesome helmet-first, sternum-cracking torpedoing that earned Matthews a $17,363 fine. That interaction was only slightly less painful and humiliating than what Matthews put Colin Kaepernick through a week earlier, when he co-opted the kiss-the-biceps celebration of the struggling 49ers QB and reminded the poor guy over an open field mic, "You ain't Russell Wilson, bro!"

Matthews' switch to inside 'backer, which began as a gamble to kick-start the Packers' defense a year ago, has indeed grown into something bordering on the extraordinary: an evolutionary leap in linebacker play that has transformed Matthews into a versatile Swiss Army knife and a front-runner for defensive player of the year while elevating the Packers, who started 6-0, into Super Bowl contention. In the age of the NFL specialist, Matthews' move is unparalleled. Nobody with five Pro Bowls under his belt just changes positions like swapping a hairstyle and gets ... better. Matthews' 13 sacks in his past 14 games through Week 7 was third most in the NFL during that stretch, behind the Texans' J.J. Watt (18) and the Chiefs' Justin Houston (14). "Clay has evolved into something completely new," says Packers assistant head coach Winston Moss, 49, who played 11 NFL seasons as a linebacker. "He's whatever's next, the Terminator nobody has an answer for yet."


BY WEEK 8 of the 2014 season, the bottom had dropped out of the Green Bay defense. Saints running back Mark Ingram had gashed the Packers for a career-high 172 yards in a 44-23 loss that left Green Bay teetering at 5-3 and dead last in rushing defense. During the following bye week, coach Mike McCarthy and his staff realized that Matthews was struggling as well. Teams had begun to neutralize him with extra blockers in the backfield or simply had run or rolled away from him, causing him to helplessly flutter behind plays like a kite tail. With Matthews, Julius Peppers and 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry, the Packers had plenty of speed and athleticism on the edge to disrupt the quarterback. But all that talent was going to waste because Green Bay couldn't stop the run or even slow it down enough to force teams into obvious passing situations.

So McCarthy summoned Matthews to his office for a chat. At the time, the All-Pro had just 2½ sacks and figured he was getting a rah-rah speech about ramping up his play in the season's second half. Instead, McCarthy asked him how he'd feel about switching to the inside. It was a huge request and an even bigger risk for Matthews. "There was a lot of hesitation and reluctance," he says. "I had a lot of success, so why change something that's been working for us?"

Matthews had become a marquee talent and a very rich one at that -- he'd signed a five-year, $66 million extension in 2013 -- by focusing on one thing: putting the fear of God in quarterbacks with signature outside rushes. The Packers were now asking him to trade that in for the exhausting grunt work of an inside linebacker. No more one-on-one matchups. Maybe even no more sack dances. All he could seemingly look forward to was wave after suffocating wave of handsy, wide-body linemen, endless sideline-to-sideline responsibilities and the constant threat of 225-pound running backs heading his way at full speed. "Two different worlds," Matthews says. In a 3-4 defense, switching to the inside from outside linebacker -- which is essentially a defensive end -- is like the Steelers asking Antonio Brown to move to fullback or someone suggesting Kanye West would actually be more effective as a roadie. That wasn't even the craziest part of the ask. If he accepted, Matthews would need to learn his new position in five days. "That first day when we approached him, he was kind of like, 'You're gonna do what? And when?'" says Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

Still, Matthews told McCarthy, "I'm up for it." He figured it was a few plays per game, probably in the form of a single inside blitz package. He didn't fully understand what he had agreed to until that next Monday morning, when he was kicked out of his normal meeting group and told to report with the rest of the inside 'backers. "I was scared to death about the middle linebacker thing," Matthews says. "'Am I gonna be any good at this? Will I get the same numbers or productivity?'" After what he calls a crash course in footwork, formations and "other stuff I probably hadn't done since high school," he took his new spot inside against Chicago, terrified that he might fall flat on his face on national television.


HIS CONCERNS WERE not without merit. On the outside, positioning and tactics had limited Matthews' responsibilities and reach to as little as one-fourth of the field, where he concentrated on setting the edge and mastering his one-on-one matchups against blockers. Inside, there were 10 times as many moving parts and 75 percent more real estate to cover. Before the snap, Matthews' mental Rolodex spun through the guard's footwork, the receivers' splits, which way the QB opened up and the constant threat of play-action. "Pass-rushing from the outside is all about explosive movements -- boom, boom, boom -- off the line," Matthews says. "The inside requires you to take a step back, be very in tune and play smart first, before you play fast."

In that first start against the Bears, though, Matthews was everywhere, a green Tasmanian devil. He made 11 tackles, many of them on the inside after fighting through blockers; had two takedowns for loss, one from the left side on a reverse; and got a sack while rushing from the right end, triggered by a sick downfield stutter-step move that made Bears tackle Jermon Bushrod look as if he had temporarily lost consciousness. Green Bay won in a rout 55-14, holding the Bears to 55 yards rushing after Chicago had piled up 235 yards on the ground in their first meeting.

Matthews was the same Matthews -- only now with exponentially more space and opportunities to wreak havoc. The Packers went on to win seven of their next eight games before falling to Seattle in overtime in the NFC championship. Playing him inside had opened up opportunities on the edge for Perry, Mike Neal and others. With their best 11 defenders on the field, the Packers could pressure the quarterback without committing extra players to the rush, which in turn freed them up to flood the defensive backfield, which led to more takeaways (37 since 2014) and provided Aaron Rodgers with more possessions to convert into points (27.3 points per game, fifth best in the NFL), which, of course, translated to more Lambeau Leaps -- and six wins to start this season. "It's so nice, in a league that is such a matchup game, to have that rare guy like Clay who gives you so much flexibility," Capers says.

This season the Packers have let Matthews experiment even more. "On five different snaps now, he might be aligned in five different places," Capers says. On the inside in Week 1 against the Bears, Matthews baited Jay Cutler into throwing to his tight end in the fourth quarter, then picked off the pass and returned it 48 yards to preserve a 31-23 win. The next week against Seattle, with the Packers needing to contain Marshawn Lynch, Matthews says he didn't rush once from the outside. Against the 49ers two weeks later, he played 24 of his 50 snaps at his old position. "He loves rushing the passer, so he's always in our ear," Moss says. "If he's got the run thing handled on the inside, that's when I'll start getting The Look. The 'Can I get a little rush on the edge?' look."

Capers usually relents and sends Matthews to the outside; his 4.5 sacks through Week 6 ranked sixth in the NFL. Then it's back inside. Or, when necessary, Matthews will put his fist in the dirt as a down lineman. Or maybe he'll sprint down the seam in the opposite direction covering a tight end as a glorified defensive back. The experiment has gone so well that both Moss and Capers have hinted that Matthews might be on the move again. "I guess it's only a matter of time before I switch up to play safety back there," says Matthews, only half joking. Capers adds: "We'll keep him limited to defense, that's all I can say. We don't need him going over to catch touchdown passes."

Good, because the only thing harder than tracking Matthews' whereabouts these days is figuring out how to classify him. Is he an inside or an outside linebacker? A Mike 'backer? A hybrid? The Hairminator? Das Sack Machine? "Yeah, I'm not sure what to call him either," Moss says. "The Transformer? The Asset? The Clayminator? Come up with something and get back to me."

How about: MVP.