In a ferocious defensive battle between two teams with a storied history of playing hard-nosed defense and with lineups Sunday that included some of the best defenders in the NFL, a run-of-the-mill outside linebacker named Erik Walden made the most plays.
Walden, who had been unemployed for almost a month when the Green Bay Packers signed him in late October, registered a game-high 10 solo tackles and 11 in all, as well as two quarterback sacks and two tackles for losses in a 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears.
But as is usually the case, thereís more to statistics than just the raw numbers.
The outside backers
In the first meeting this year between the teams, Jay Cutler scrambled for 37 yards. That no doubt was why the Packers often used Walden as a so-called spy on the Bearsí quarterback.
Walden would move into the center of the field five, six yards off the ball to make sure that Cutler wasnít going to cut the Packers up on the ground. The plan obviously was to pressure Cutler, but also to keep him in the pocket.
In addition, the Bears seemed to be trying to take Clay Matthews out of the game by formation. They motioned tight ends to his side and forced Matthews to widen out, which meant he had a longer distance to go to get to the quarterback. The Bears kept tight ends in to block him and also did a lot of chip blocking on him. So Walden also was a beneficiary of the Bearsí game plan.
But take nothing away from Walden. He ran plays down in the running game. And heís 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds. He has some strength behind him when he makes a tackle. He might be the fourth player the Packers have used at right outside linebacker this year, but he looks to be a better athlete than Frank Zombo and Brady Poppinga, and maybe Brad Jones as well.
Walden might be a little bit of a liability on the edge against runs coming at him, but he has more speed than those guys to run people down on the other side of the field.
After zeroing in on Matthews, it appears as though heís getting away from what made him special. He seems to be jumping around more before the snap instead of just lining up and going. Maybe if he wasnít trying so hard to get into the linemanís head, heíd have a better burst off the ball.
He made some big tackles that got the defense off the field on third down. Then again, a linebacker doesnít always have to make the tackle to make a play. There were times in the running game where Hawk was in his gap, and the runner had to go inside or outside, and another guy made the tackle. The Bears were pulling two linemen at times and Hawk got knocked around a little bit, but thatís a tough play. His run fits were exceptional.
When two defensive teams are playing that well, field position is everything. The Packers didnít allow Devin Hester a big return, and Masthay pinned the Bears inside the 5-yard line twice in the fourth quarter. That may have been the difference in the game. There arenít a lot of 95-, 98-yard touchdown drives. Masthay punted into the corner, punted out of bounds, even punted into the end zone from 50 yards at the end of the half.
The Packers will have to do the same thing next Sunday. Youíre asking for trouble if you punt down the middle of the field to Hester or DeSean Jackson. If you hem them in on the sideline, they can do one of two things: Go straight up the sideline or try to circle all the way around the field, and the percentages of breaking a return that way greatly diminish. Jackson didnít return punts all the time for Philadelphia, but youíve got to figure in the playoffs that heíll be back there.
A lot of people are going to say the Packersí offense didnít play very well, but that was a tough-nut defense they played. There were a lot of plays where Aaron Rodgers had nowhere to go with the ball.
In the end, the difference in this game was the two quarterbacks. Cutler throws two picks; Rodgers one. On Cutlerís interceptions both were bad passes and one was a dumb throw. On Rodgersí interception, the defensive back made a great play.
Whatever it is about James Starks and practice that the coaches donít like is hard to figure out because when he gets his chances in a game, he seems to make the most of them. He runs hard and falls forward. He doesnít get stopped for negative yards. He looks athletic and heís got some natural strength when he gets his pads down over his toes.
Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn may be more reliable and are better out in space, but Starks is their best-looking runner.
One would think he could be a key bait player in the playoffs. Most of the time when heís in the game, he gets the ball. So if they run play-action passes with him, linebackers and safeties are probably going to bite hard.