Packers' defense pummels Vikings
So this is what it looks like when everything clicks for the Green Bay Packers.
Four days after the offense got its groove back at Soldier Field, Dom Capers' defense put together one of its most dominating performances in recent memory in a 42-10 throttling of the Minnesota Vikings in front of 78,054 at Lambeau Field Thursday night.
They couldn't have done it without Christian Ponder. Starting in place of an injured Teddy Bridgewater (sprained ankle), the Vikings' former starting quarterback looked every bit a backup in the face of constant pressure.
Timid in the pocket, Capers' defense recorded six sacks and 16 quarterback hits at Ponder's expense, nearly matching their contact on opposing quarterbacks through the first four games (six sacks, 19 hits) in a single game.
Scoreless on their first 11 possessions, the Packers scored six times by the time the Vikings knew what hit them. What resulted was the performance the defense needed after relinquishing nearly 500 total yards in Sunday's 38-17 win over the Chicago Bears.
"I knew we were always capable of putting together such a performance kind of on film for everybody and just for our own confidence," outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. "It was just a matter of doing it. We've shown glimpses. We've shown quarters. We've shown halves of it, but it was nice to put together a full game."
As rough as the performance was against the Bears, the defense turned the momentum in the game with two second-half interceptions of Jay Cutler. That trend continued against the Vikings, who were fresh off an impressive 41-28 win over Atlanta.
During introductions, the Packers announced their starting 3-4 defense and actually used it against a Minnesota Vikings' offense missing Bridgewater and All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson.
With the quad defense on the backburner, Ponder was on his heels from the start through a rotation of the barrage of the tried-and-true Okie, nickel and dime defenses. The Vikings didn't take a snap on the Packers' side of the field in the first half. Their first five possessions were all punts, including a pair of three-and-outs.
The pressure finally broke Ponder in the second quarter when the Packers forced the Vikings into three consecutive turnovers, including back-to-back interceptions with the most unlikely of candidates forcing the first.
Rookie defensive lineman Luther Robinson, who was promoted from the practice squad around noon to replace an injured Josh Boyd (knee) on the defensive line, was forced onto the field in the second half for an injured Datone Jones.
A tryout player in May's rookie orientation, it was Robinson's pressure of Ponder and subsequent tipped pass that turned into Julius Peppers' 49-yard interception returned for a touchdown to make it 21-0.
"I'm very happy for Luther," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "You watch what the young man did, starting in training camp, his work on the practice squad, then to have the opportunity tonight to make a play like that. It's always a little special when a young man steps up when he gets an opportunity and takes advantage of it."
It was only the start of the Vikings' problems. Two plays into the next series, Ponder gifted inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore with his first NFL interception on a weak slant pass for running back Jerick McKinnon. The Packers scored three plays later on an 11-yard touchdown pass to rookie Davante Adams, the first of his NFL career.
Just when the Vikings felt like it couldn't get any worse, Packers safety Morgan Burnett forced his first fumble in nearly two years on running back Matt Asiata for the third in the half.
The Vikings finally got on the board with a Christian Ponder 6-yard scramble 6 seconds into the fourth quarter. It was the first points the Packers' defense allowed in 78 minutes, 56 seconds dating back to Alshon Jeffery's 8-yard touchdown in the second quarter Sunday.
"We've played some good halves, but we haven't really put a full game together until tonight for the most part," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "We wanted to pitch a shutout, for sure, but that's the closest we got to playing four quarters like we want to as a defense."
The Packers' run defense, which came in ranked last in the NFL with 176.0 yards allowed per game, held the Vikings' eighth-ranked rushing offense in check. Asiata and McKinnon combined for 96 yards and a 4.4-yard per carry average, but the Packers' defense didn't allow a carry of more than 11 yards.
Letroy Guion was at the heart of it. The veteran defensive lineman had his best performance in a Packers' uniform against his former team in registering four tackles (one for a loss) with 1½ sacks and three quarterback hits.
"He always brings it," said defensive lineman Mike Daniels, who had three tackles, 1 ½ sacks and a team-high four quarterback hits. "It was awesome to see him out there making the plays that he was just an inch away from all year so far."
The key for the defense is keeping the performance going. The Packers showed signs of brilliance in the second half against the New York Jets and throughout a 19-7 loss to Detroit until taking a step back against the Bears.
The Packers' offense wasn't perfect, but it managed to get Eddie Lacy his first 100-yard rushing game of the season. Two early scores matched with Peppers' interception put the game in hand before halftime.
Thursday marked Green Bay's final division game for a month and moved the Packers within a half game of Detroit (3-1) for the NFC North lead. The Lions host Buffalo (2-2) Sunday at Ford Field.
The Packers now have a 10-day break until they travel to Miami. The defense still has a ways to go, but pummeling a lesser opponent playing with a backup quarterback was a good start.
If nothing else, it was the first time the offense and defense finally seemed to be on at the same time this season.
"We've been a team that will put together a couple good quarters. Then, we may put together a couple bad quarters," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "We never put together four good quarters and today was the opportunity to do that and we did that. It felt good."
-- firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod