GENARO C. ARMAS, AP Sports Writer
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — It’s easy to spot Clay Matthews at Packers practice, with his long blond hair protruding from his helmet and on to his neck and shoulders.
When the veterans are getting a break, the pass-rushing outside linebacker can often be found taking a breather next to A.J. Hawk, the durable inside linebacker.
After some doubt, they’ll be together again this weekend to face the Detroit Lions. The Packers’ bye week did wonders for Matthews and his sore hamstring.
“Well I mean we obviously had the bye week, which helped out as far as” getting healthy, Matthews said Thursday. “It was a fortuitous bye week, I’ll say that.”
The TV commercial star and the eight-year veteran. The energized Matthews, in his fifth season, and the well-spoken, blue-collar Hawk. Mainstays of the Packers starting linebacking corps since 2009.
So many games against NFC North foes like the Lions, it must make playing them seem like second nature.
Wrong, said Hawk. Especially with Reggie Bush in the mix now in Detroit to join receiver Calvin Johnson to give opposing defenses headaches.
“And the truth is, I’ve been part of a lot of games like that. You go in with all these things that you think are 100 percent, and they can change in division games,” Hawk said. “I need these days leading up to every game. I need every rep I can get because we’re working on so many different looks and so many different things.”
Sounds like sage comments a grizzled veteran would say. Hawk agreed to a pay cut in the offseason, not worried about outside perception of the deal. Hawk has also taken heat from fans about perhaps being a step slow, or not making enough big plays.
But he does make tackles — 28 this year, second behind Brad Jones, and a team-high 145 last season. He’s also durable, having played in 123 of a possible 125 games while in Green Bay.
It’s all in the preparation, Hawk said, at least until Sunday.
“I have little tips in the back of my head that I’ve written down all week,” he said. “But I know once I’m out there, we just need to run around and make plays.”
Which is exactly what Matthews is known for, becoming one of the league’s most popular defensive players. His No. 52 jerseys might be outnumbered in the Lambeau Field stands only by the No. 12 jerseys for Aaron Rodgers among current players.
When he’s on the field, Matthews fires up the crowd and his teammates. When he’s on the sideline with a hamstring injury, like when he was knocked out of the Bengals game two weeks ago, it gives the green-and-gold fans a scare.
Matthews missed four games last season with a hamstring problem. He quickly reminded reporters Thursday that when he returned, Dec. 16 at Chicago, he had two sacks.
“The first part of getting over a hamstring strain is healing, and obviously I can’t control that,” Matthews said. “But coming back, the final hurdle you have to overcome is mentally are you comfortable with exerting 100 percent effort or even more so. I wouldn’t put myself out there if I wasn’t.”
In his fifth season in the league, Matthews still possesses the wide-eyed eagerness of a rookie. But that experience is building up in his brain, beneath those trademark locks, especially when it comes to dealing with his hamstring.
Matthews was playing well with two forced fumbles and a sack against Cincinnati before departing. It was a joint decision with medical staff and coaches.
“I just told them where I was at and how I felt and moving forward what the smart thing would be,” Matthews said. “At that point in the game, with that lead, too, I felt like it was the wise decision.”
The Packers went on to cough up their 16-point lead.
But it’s a long season. After the early bye, the Packers will have to play 13 straight weeks.
“I think I’ve become a lot smarter. Obviously a younger player would have kind have pressed the issue, maybe hurt himself even more so,” Matthews said. “But I think we’re smart with the events that took place in Cincinnati and where we’re at now, so fortunately there will be no time missed.”
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