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Mike Vandermause column: Despite flaws, Green Bay Packers' defense comes through in the clutch

Nov. 6, 2011
 
Green Bay Packers' Charlie Peprah returns an interception for a touchdown near San Diego Chargers' Jeromey Clary during the first quarter of the game at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011. Photo by Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
Green Bay Packers' Charlie Peprah returns an interception for a touchdown near San Diego Chargers' Jeromey Clary during the first quarter of the game at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011. Photo by Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
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SAN DIEGO — The Green Bay Packers’ locker room was a little subdued Sunday despite a 45-38 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.

If you didn’t know any better after talking to some members of the Packers defense, you might have thought they lost the game.

Yes, the defense surrendered 460 total yards, 28 first downs and five touchdowns. Yes, the defense almost blew a three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter. Yes, the Packers left plenty of room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

Cornerback Tramon Williams called it a “bad performance overall” by the defense. Fellow cornerback Charles Woodson said he was disappointed in the defense, which he labeled a liability.

“We’re getting wins, but there’s going to be a lot of guys walking around like we got a loss,” said Williams.

In reality, the Packers defense has nothing to apologize for. Not after returning two interceptions for touchdowns in the first quarter, one by Charlie Peprah and the other by Williams. And certainly not after stopping the Chargers’ offense twice in the final 4 minutes to seal the victory while clinging to a seven-point lead.

In between giving up big plays and gobs of yardage, the Packers defense has made crucial stops and forced key turnovers all season long. Sure, the Packers’ perfect record has been spearheaded by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ explosive offense, but don’t sell the defense short.

“We were not as sharp as we need to be as a team, but we won the football game,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy.

That’s been a common theme for the last two months. The Packers have yet to play a perfect game but have somehow found a way to win every single time, including five games on the road.

When the Packers assumed a commanding 45-24 lead over the Chargers with just over 10 minutes remaining, it appeared they had sealed the deal. But the Chargers came roaring back with a pair of touchdowns in a span of 1 minute, 7 seconds, got the ball back and were poised to produce a comeback for the ages.

That’s when the much maligned Packers defense, as it always seems to do, rose up and extinguished the fire. The Chargers had a first down at the Packers’ 35 with under 4 minutes left but wound up punting. They got the ball back one more time and drove to the Packers’ 41 before Peprah clinched the victory in the waning seconds with his second interception.

“When it comes time to make the plays to win, to tighten up, we’re doing that,” said Peprah. “And I think that’s what counts.”

That is all that matters in the NFL. It makes no difference how many yards or big plays a team allows. When the Packers have absolutely, positively needed to make a stop this season, the defense has consistently done it.

“We’ve been in that situation I don’t know how many times before where we need a stop,” said linebacker A.J. Hawk. “When we need to make the plays we kind of have.”

Even Williams was willing to admit as much.

“Seemed like once the game got on the line we’re playing our best football,” he said. “I guess that’s all that really matters.”

Time and time again this season, that is a pattern the defense has followed. It stopped New Orleans at the goal-line in the final minute of the season opener. It thwarted a late Carolina rally. It shut out Atlanta for almost the entire final three quarters. It stopped a Vikings’ comeback attempt late in the game by forcing a punt. And it ended not one but two late Chargers’ drives.

Life would be easier for the Packers and their fans if the defense didn’t put itself in position to require late-game heroics.

“We need to find a way to not let it get to that point,” said Hawk.

But the NFL isn’t a game of style points. Winning matters, and the defense is doing enough to make that happen.

“We’re not going to treat this like a loss,” said Hawk. “We won the game. We found a way to win it. But that’s kind of football. It’s up and down.”

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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