Packers' defense coming up big this year
GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers team that used to score and score and score until the opposition caved is gone.
The foundation of the team that pulled off a second straight hold-your-breath-until-the-final-minutes victory at Lambeau Field is built with defense.
It is the only conclusion that can be made after the Packers were able to score just 23 points and still beat the New York Giants by a touchdown, 23-16, Sunday night.
In jumping out to a 3-1 record, the Packers have allowed 83 points, an average of just over 20 per game.
Twice the defense has been short-handed enough that the opposition should have been able to knock it around, yet the unit is mostly responsible for two of the three victories and barely responsible at all for the loss.
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Against the Giants, the defense played without its two starting cornerbacks after Damarious Randall was a scratch two hours before the game with a groin injury. It left it with Quinten Rollins, LaDarius Gunter and Micah Hyde to handle the Giants’ talented receiving trio of Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepherd.
Despite the absence of Sam Shields (concussion) and Randall, the Packers held Beckham to five catches on 12 targeted passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. Cruz finished without a catch on two targets and Shepherd caught 2 of 7 passes targeted to him for 14 yards.
It was a testament to coordinator Dom Capers’ full unit more than the trio of cornerbacks who tried to make it work.
"They did a good job trying to take away our receivers and force us to run the ball," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. "They did a good job of disguising a few things. They played well. They got good pressure just bringing four guys a lot of times.
"We're playing some coverages where it'll take a little time for some things to develop."
The Giants had almost no running game to speak of without Rashad Jennings, who was inactive with a thumb injury, and the Packers, who came into the game with the NFL’s top run defense, held New York to 43 yards on 15 carries, a 2.9-yard average.
Putting a great deal of faith into the front seven to handle the run game and provide pass rush with mostly four-man pressures, Capers was able to protect his young cornerbacks with safety help and still get enough pressure on Manning to sack him four times and limit him to 199 yards passing, one touchdown and 51.4% completion percentage (18 of 35).
"They make it tough to run the ball," Giants coach Ben McAdoo said. "I thought we had a couple runs come out. Other than that, the type of game it was, it was going to be tough to run the ball. We needed to complete it. We needed to use the pass to set up the run a little bit and it didn't work out tonight."
The Packers' defense did it all despite the crummy punting game continually putting it in a bad position.
After four Packers punts, the defense started in order at the Giants’ 45-, 39-, 47- and 49-yard lines and the results of the four New York drives were field goal, fumble, field goal and punt. It wasn’t until the final 6½ minutes that the defense finally succumbed to a touchdown drive, allowing the Giants to drive 63 yards on 10 plays, the last an acrobatic catch by Beckham in the back of the end zone.
The Packers’ offense made sure the defense didn’t have to come back on the field, running out the final 2 minutes, 54 seconds.
"Anytime you can keep their playmakers limited, that's always going to help your cause to win," Rollins said. "We just wanted to come in and limit their abilities. We knew they'd make some catches, but limit their playmaking abilities with the run after the catch. I felt like we did a good job of that tonight."
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Early in the game, the Giants took advantage of Beckham’s speed over Rollins, who didn’t challenge the temperamental receiver at the line of scrimmage the way Minnesota’s Xavier Rhodes had last week. Rollins played off Beckham and tried to use the help of safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to prevent any deep passes.
Beckham caught a 13-yard pass on the first series and a pair of 16-yarders on the Giants’ second possession, one of which was nullified by a holding penalty. But neither of those series resulted in points and the best the Giants could do in the first half was manage a pair of field goals.
Rather than risk playing rookie Josh Hawkins in the dime package, Capers moved Burnett up to the line of scrimmage in a combination coverage/blitz position and replaced him at deep safety with rookie Kentrell Brice. Burnett was able to both add pressure to the pass rush and drop into coverage to help limit Beckham’s contribution.
In the meantime, Capers kept running his hybrid linebackers in and out of the lineup, keeping them fresh so they could keep Manning off-balance.
Clay Matthews, coming off a hamstring injury, played far fewer snaps than usual but came up with a sack and a quarterback hit. Nick Perry wasn’t much of a factor in the first half, but in the second he had a sack and several hits on Manning.
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Rookie Kyler Fackrell provided one of the biggest plays of the game when he knocked the ball out of Manning’s hands on a sack late in the second quarter, setting up kicker Mason Crosby for a 44-yard field goal that gave the Packers a 17-6 halftime lead.
"As always, it starts up front," coach Mike McCarthy said. "I thought our D-line and our run defense was really where it needed to be. We tried to slow down that no-huddle offense. They did a very good job at the line of scrimmage, staying in a favorable pass selection, and I though our defense played very well."
Overall, it was the type of performance the defense is becoming known for, the kind that is becoming the catalyst for winning games.