Packers' defense out to earn equal billing

Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - On the same day the Minnesota Vikings' defense forced three turnovers, scored two touchdowns, sacked the quarterback twice and gave up just 64 yards rushing against Tennessee, the Green Bay Packers' defense rose up and shut down the Jacksonville Jaguars when it mattered most.

Packers defensive end Letroy Guion manhandles Jacksonville Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon  for a loss in the first quarter during the  Green Bay Packers 27-23 win  Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, at Everbank Field, in Jacksonville.

The Vikings’ performance wasn’t unexpected.

Having built an impressive collection of talent through the draft the last couple of years, the Vikings already had begun flexing their defensive muscles last year under second-year head coach Mike Zimmer, ranking fifth overall in points allowed, 13th in yards allowed and tied for ninth in touchdowns off turnovers.

The Packers’ performance isn’t as clear cut.

They always have been known as an offensive team because of their outstanding quarterback play the last two decades, but this is the season when their defense is supposed to catch up and at least be an equal factor in the team’s success.

In the 27-23 victory over the Jaguars at EverBank Stadium, the Packers' defense showed flashes of being a unit the Vikings will have to take seriously Sunday night in the regular-season debut of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Its fourth-down stop with 23 seconds left in the game preserved a victory in which the offense struggled with basic communication and couldn’t finish off a pair of key drives with touchdowns. An interception on Jacksonville’s first series was the only reason the offense got to play on the other side of the 50-yard line in the first 24 minutes of the game.

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 “You just go to the last play, I mean the pursuit and finish to win the fourth-and-1 is the biggest play of the game,” coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “And that was our No. 1 emphasis since the spring and through training camp, so I thought our guys played with a great energy, dealt with some challenging circumstances, played really well in certain areas and areas where we know we can improve on.”

If this is the year the defense makes its stand, the number of big plays allowed is going to have to come down. The play is going to have to match the expectations that go along with having seven first-round picks, including one from each of the last five drafts.

On the one hand, the defense gave up 320 yards passing, but on the other it sacked quarterback Blake Bortles three times and limited the Jaguars' running attack to 1.8 yards per carry. In the first half, it allowed 17 points and in the second half it allowed six.

“We knew going into this game that Jacksonville led the league last year in 20-plus-yard plays, so they were very capable and they had six against us,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We talk about this all the time, if we don’t give up big plays, then we normally don’t give up many points. They got their points off of big plays.

“The other area we have to improve in is fourth down. As good a job as we did on third down (4 of 15), we put them in a number of fourth-down situations and they converted their fourth downs (3 of 4).”

Improvement will have to come in many forms and the potential loss of cornerback Sam Shields this week and beyond due to a concussion is problematic. But the secondary is supposed to be the defense’s deepest position and it passed a major test at the end of the game when both Shields and backup cornerback LaDarius Gunter (cramps) were sidelined.

If there were signs this defense was going to be anywhere in the same class as Minnesota’s this season, it was the solid run defense, the clutch stop at the end of the game and the pass rush that came from many different sources.

The latter is something Capers has been seeking for years.

Instead of relying on Clay Matthews to cause headaches for opposing passers – with intermittent help from Julius Peppers and Mike Daniels – the Packers showed some diversity in getting after Bortles.

Matthews had his usual impact – a sack, a tackle for loss and several pressures -- but outside linebacker Nick Perry had one of his finest games as a professional, continually stacking up the run while picking up a sack and a tackle for loss. Perry was given a defensive game ball for his performance.

Another former first-round pick, Datone Jones, also had a big game. He easily could be credited with setting up at least two sacks with pressure from the outside linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle positions.

Dime linebacker Joe Thomas got into the act also, blitzing effectively up the middle and helping finish off receiver Allen Hurns on the Jaguars’ ill-fated fourth-down play at the end of the game.

“I like our rotation there,” Capers said. “I thought Nick Perry played a really fine game. You saw Nick show up, you saw Clay show up, you saw Datone show up, Joe. That’s what we hope. I think we have some different combinations of things, people we can rush.

“I think on any given play any of those guys can win one-on-ones and in this league you have to be able to win one-on-ones.”

Missing from that assessment was Peppers, who played only 29 of 72 snaps (40 percent) and did not register a statistic. There will be a time when Capers calls on Peppers for more help, but the performances of Perry, Jones and Matthews made it such that his pass rush wasn’t desperately missed.

But then again, if the Packers are going to be that kind of defense, they’ll need the No. 9 all-time leader in sacks to have an impact.

“We still believe Julius is a match-up problem in terms of rushing and so he’s a part of our rotation,” Capers said. “You could see that rotation change from week to week, but we kind of like where we have that right now because we have a number of guys there that we think are very capable.

“And we’ve got three or four big guys and we have some, you’d probably list them as athletic guys. And so, you could see different combinations from week to week.”

As for this week, the Packers will be challenged to call themselves the best defense at U.S. Bank Stadium. But if this is to be their year, there might not be a better opportunity to show that they are.

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