Defense again lifts struggling offense
For all the strides the Green Bay Packers' defense has made this season, it hadn't encountered much adversity entering Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams.
In the team's first four wins, a flawless Aaron Rodgers and the NFL's third-ranked rushing offense kept field position skewed in the Packers' favor. When neither was clicking Sunday, it was up to the defense to make up the difference.
Dom Capers' unit responded with three sacks and 12 hits on Nick Foles, forcing the Rams quarterback into four interceptions in the Packers' 24-10 win over in front of 78,432 at Lambeau Field. It remedied another inconsistent day for Green Bay's offense, which again struggled to establish rhythm.
The offense hoped to rebound after a so-so performance in last week's 17-3 win over San Francisco. Instead, Rodgers not only threw his first interception at Lambeau Field in nearly three years but also turned the ball over on three occasions. Twice, the Rams started drives in Packers' territory.
Each time, the defense had the answer. After Rodgers threw his first interception in the first quarter, Micah Hyde picked off Foles three plays later. When Green Bay failed to convert a fourth-and-1 on the next series, Quinten Rollins returned an interception off Foles for a 45-yard touchdown.
In the end, the offense's three turnovers resulted in only three points.
"We've struggled on offense the last couple of weeks, so they've been excellent," said Rodgers, who attempted 586 consecutive passes at home without an interception prior to Sunday. "They kind of exploded with the turnovers today. That pick-six was big in the first quarter for us from Q, and then obviously when you turn the ball over, get picks in the red zone, that directly impacts the game taking points off the board."
Like last week against the 49ers, the Packers' offense looked fine on its opening series Sunday when it traveled 56 yards on six plays in less than 2 minutes. The drive ended with Rodgers finding rookie receiver Ty Montgomery wide open in the middle of the field on a crossing route for a 31-yard touchdown.
Offensively, the Rams' game plan was built around establishing rookie running back Todd Gurley in hopes of slowing Rodgers and opening up their passing game. Gurley racked up 159 rushing yards, including a 55-yarder in the fourth quarter, but Foles' lack of mobility made him an easy target for the Packers' pass rush.
His first interception to Hyde came with outside linebacker Julius Peppers in his face on third-and-eight. On the next series, defensive end Datone Jones forced Foles into another ill-advised pass on third-and-nine, which rookie cornerback Rollins intercepted and returned for a 45-yard touchdown.
Foles was hit on 15 of his 33 drop backs. Linebacker Clay Matthews contributed four of them, including 1 1/2 sacks and another pulverizing blow to Foles' chest in the first quarter. Foles finished with a 23.8 passer rating on 11-for-30 passing for 141 yards and a touchdown.
"He's a rhythmic quarterback," said outside linebacker Mike Neal, who hit Foles once. "You have to be able to break his rhythm and once you break his rhythm, everything else will play into our favor. Being able to stop their offensive rhythm — they do a lot of gadget plays — if you're able to break that, then you kind of get those guys rattled."
The defense failed to respond on only one occasion. It happened in the second quarter after Jeff Janis knocked a Tim Masthay punt into the end zone for a touchback. The Rams then drove 80 yards, culminating in receiver Tavon Austin's 5-yard touchdown off the jet sweep.
The closest the Rams came to the lead was after Trumaine Johnson perfectly timed a screen pass intended for James Jones, forcing Rodgers' second pick in six plays. Green Bay's defense limited St. Louis to a 42-yard field goal, which cut the deficit to 14-10 with 1:44 left in the half.
Rodgers hit Jones for a 65-yard touchdown after halftime to give the Packers more breathing room, but the offense’s inability to get its running game going made it difficult to sustain drives. Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined for only 44 yards on 18 carries (2.4 yards per carry).
Receiver Randall Cobb, who’s playing through a sprained AC joint, was held to three catches for 23 yards. Tight end Richard Rodgers led the offense with six catches for 45 yards, but dropped what could have been a 30-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“When we didn’t run it very well,” said Rodgers, who finished 19-of-30 passing for 241 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. “They kind of challenged us in the box and then challenged us outside, and we didn’t get open enough and we didn’t throw it well enough today. We turned it over too many times. We got bailed out by our defense.”
St. Louis darted back midway through the third quarter after successfully executing a fake punt when punter Johnny Hekker completed a 20-yard pass to safety Cody Davis after Demetri Goodson fell down in coverage.
The defense still kept the Rams off the board, leading to Datone Jones blocking Greg Zuerlein's 50-yard field goal. A quick snap led to a Rodgers fumble on the next series, but the damage was minimized when Zuerlein missed another 53-yard field goal wide left.
Mason Crosby had a 47-yard field goal taken off the board at the start of the fourth quarter due to Richard Rodgers being called for illegal hands to the face. Gurley ran for 55 yards on the first play of the next series, but the drive ended when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix picked off Foles in Green Bay's end zone after inside linebacker Joe Thomas deflected the pass intended for Austin.
St. Louis' last stand came with a minute left and trailing by two touchdowns. Foles beat Rollins with a 68-yard pass to receiver Stedman Bailey, but the rookie cornerback got him back with another interception with 28 seconds remaining to end the game. Each turnover came in the face of pressure.
"They pressured him like crazy today," Hyde said. "It was huge. I think most of the turnovers came on the pressure and making him throw into small pockets. As long as we can do that — the guys up front getting pressure — we're going to be hard to beat."
Each of the last two weeks the Packers have leaned on their defense to get a win. The offense admittedly has some soul-searching to do in its attempt to overcome all the injuries it has weathered so far this season. It endured another Sunday with right guard T.J. Lang (knee) leaving in the third quarter.
What the last two games have taught the Packers, however, is they have a defense they can rely on when the offense isn't putting up 35 points a game. Now 5-0 with a 2½-game lead in the NFC North, Green Bay likes where it stands entering next Sunday's game against San Diego.
"We can complain all we want on the sideline about, 'Yeah, let's get points,' but would the defense want it any other way?" Matthews said. "For so long now, this has been (an offensive team). It still is an offensive team, but it's nice when the defense can hold their own, especially in the last couple weeks of doing so, especially when the opposition is having a good defensive game and maybe our offense isn't clicking.
"These are the types of games that we need sometimes and kind of show our identity."
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