All training camp long, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy tried to put his team in every possible situation it might encounter during a game.
One thing he couldn’t fully simulate in a training camp practice was full-contact, goal-line defense.
Sure enough, Thursday NFL opener against the New Orleans Saints came down to exactly that scenario.
A game that featured 876 yards of total offense came down to 1 yard — 3 measly feet — with no time left on the clock. To be sure, the Packers rehearse that play over and over but to do it live in practice would mean risking injury to their own offensive linemen. So when it is done, it’s done at something less than full contact or full speed.
Anything less than all-out, maximum-speed defense wouldn’t be enough on this night at Lambeau Field.
When Saints coach Sean Payton called rookie running back Mark Ingram’s number on the final play of the game — first-and-goal from the 1-yard line — the Packers were ready for it. Their goal-line package of four defensive linemen, four linebackers and three defensive backs stuffed Ingram for no gain on a play that went off right guard. A Packers’ defense that allowed the Saints to pile up 477 total net yards of offense wouldn’t allow one more and because of it, the Packers were a 42-34 winner in the first step toward defending their Super Bowl title.
“You can’t practice that because you don’t want to hurt your own guys,” said Howard Green, one of the Packers’ front four on that play. “We do it, but we don’t go full tilt.”
Hoping Payton would try to run for a touchdown that, along with a successful two-point conversion, would have forced overtime, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers sent in Green, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji and Jarius Wynn. That’s three 340-pounders plus the 285-pound Wynn.
Pickett was praying Payton would run. However, earlier in the fourth quarter, Payton went for it on fourth-and-1 from the Packers’ 7 and called a play-action pass. The Packers got pressure on quarterback Drew Brees, who was forced to throw incomplete.
“Jogging out there, I was thinking they were going to do a play-action again,” Pickett said. “I was like, ‘Please let them run the ball’ because I felt like we can get up under them, and that’s going to allow the linebackers to be free.”
When Raji saw the way the Saints lined up, he knew it was a run.
“Big (right guard Jahari) Evans, he was like in a root-hog pig stance, and I didn’t think they were passing,” Raji said. “The guy was basically like three centimeters off the ground. I just tried to get low and knock him back enough.”
What surprised Raji was that the Saints ran to their right, where he, Pickett and outside linebacker Clay Matthews were anchored. When the defensive line got low and collapsed things up front, it allowed Matthews to come in from the side and safety Morgan Burnett to come over the top to hit Ingram.
“We had our big guys in there, our fat guys so to speak, because we had a heavy inclination that they were going to run,” Matthews said. “Fortunately, they got great penetration up front, and we were able to hold them up on the outside edge and put a few bodies on them and keep them out of the end zone. That’s really all it boiled down to, getting off the field with that victory.”
Linebacker A.J. Hawk thought he had done just that on the previous play. The Saints were seemingly down to their last chance on third-and-1 from the Packers’ 9-yard line with three seconds left. Brees saw running back Darren Sproles open in the end zone, and tried to thread the ball to him. Hawk broke up the pass but in the process was flagged for pass interference. That set up the one-last-play scenario from the 1-yard line.
Hawk, who makes the defensive calls in the huddle, said he could barely remember what the call was on the final play because he was still steaming over the penalty.
“I kind of lost it after the penalty,” Hawk said. “I was just trying to jump over (Sproles). I think I kind of did, but obviously I didn’t. It was just great to get that stop.”
The Packers surely gave up too many yards and were beat too many times for Capers’ liking. That will be corrected in the film room and on the practice field.
But the walk-off, goal-line stand needs no work.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.