Defense rises to the occasion with second-half shutout

Dec. 8, 2013

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Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42) congratulates teammate Jarrett Bush (24) after Bush broke up a pass against the Atlanta Falcons on fourth down late in the fourth quarter Sunday at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media


A Green Bay Packers defense that many had written off came up with a signature performance Sunday to stop a five-game winless streak.

In the past five games, in which they went 0-4-1, the Packers’ defense allowed an average of 440 yards, including 185 on the ground. Even in their previous victories, the much-maligned defense had trouble ending games.

But on Sunday, with their faint playoff hopes on the line, the defense stepped up — particularly in the second half — to lift the Packers to a 22-21 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

In the second half, the defense shut out the Falcons, allowing only 136 yards and forcing two turnovers. The second turnover, an interception by dime back Jarrett Bush, essentially ended the game and leveled the Packers’ record at 6-6-1.

Perhaps no player better represents the Packers’ fortunes of late than Bush, a special teams ace whose presence on defense usually means desperation.

“J.B., you love to see him have success because of how hard he works and what he’s poured into our football team, into this program the last eight years,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I’m very happy for Jarrett Bush and the way he played today.”

Bush was the dime back Sunday after Davon House was benched from that role. Bush’s other key play was a pass breakup while covering future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez on a fourth-and-5 play from the Green Bay 33-yard line. Bush blanketed Gonzalez on the play, and the turnover on downs gave the Packers the ball back with a one-point lead and 1 minute, 55 seconds to play.

“To play a great player like Tony Gonzalez is always a challenge,” Bush said. “I just did my due diligence studying him and knowing what he likes to do, route-wise and scheme-wise. It paid huge dividends today.

“I knew it was going to be that type of route because he’s that kind of reliable player. Matt Ryan definitely has a comfort level with him, and I knew on fourth down, why not go to the sure-hands guy?”

But even before Bush’s heroics, the defense was finding ways to stop a Falcons offense that has been plagued by injuries all season but still has several elite players in quarterback Ryan, wide receiver Roddy White, running back Steven Jackson and Gonzalez.

The Packers’ defense opened the second half with two straight three-and-outs, then recovered a fumble when linebacker Mike Neal hit Ryan’s arm, jarring loose the ball that was recovered by Johnny Jolly at Atlanta’s 21. Four plays later, the Packers scored for a 22-21 lead.

“You look for those plays, and all throughout my career, you just want to be that guy to make the play and have the right opportunity,” Neal said. “Obviously, it was a big momentum play at the end of the game. It boosted our offense and it got us the ‘W’ that we needed.”

There still were 12 minutes left in the game and this one wasn’t over by a long shot. And it looked as though Atlanta might retake the lead on its next drive after the Falcons drove to the Packers’ 32-yard line. But two incomplete passes and a Jolly stuff of Jason Snelling for minus-2 yards set up a 52-yard field goal try. Kicker Matt Bryant’s attempt was short.

Following a three-and-out by Green Bay, the defense faced another test when Atlanta took over at its 17 with 4:38 left. Three passes totaling 41 yards helped the Falcons drive to the Packers’ 37-yard line. But on second-and-9, Micah Hyde’s blitz forced Ryan to throw incomplete. Then, Datone Jones tackled Jacquizz Rodgers after a 4-yard pass play to set up Bush’s breakup of Ryan’s pass to Gonzalez on fourth down.

After another Green Bay punt, the Falcons had the ball at their 9 with 44 seconds left. Five plays later, Bush’s interception on third-and-10 closed out the victory.

In all, the Packers allowed 285 yards — third-lowest this season — and only 14 of Atlanta’s 21 points (the Falcons returned a Matt Flynn interception for a second-quarter touchdown). It didn’t resemble the defense that allowed 561 yards to Detroit 10 days before.

“We’ve been feeling it for quite some time,” linebacker Clay Matthews said about whether the Packers felt a sense of urgency. “If we’re not able to win these games coming down to the end, it’s going to be very difficult to give ourselves an opportunity. Now we’re a half-game out and we need a little help, but we definitely feel that urgency, and it was great to feel that within today’s game.

“It didn’t get out of hand. We were down, but we stuck with it. The offense was rolling and the defense was making plays. We turned out a great performance.” or follow him on Twitter @robertzizzo.

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If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

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