GREEN BAY – On the third defensive snap of a fourth straight loss in November, outside linebacker Nick Perry had a sack that exemplified everything wrong with the Green Bay Packers' defense.
Usually, it would be a celebrated play. Perry certainly thought so. The Packers' sack leader peeled himself off Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins with swagger, swaying his shoulders back and forth.
Then the film review came Monday morning. Coaches pointed out something that had been lost in the moment.
Cousins never saw Perry. He held the football loose, away from his body. It was there for the taking.
“Just look at Nick’s first sack early in the game,” coach Mike McCarthy said a day after returning from Washington. “That’s a sack-fumble opportunity, and we don’t quite get the ball out. We need to learn from that.”
Perry, in the midst of a career year, was far from the only Packers player who missed an opportunity to make a key play early in November.
At their rock-bottom worst this season, that’s what the Packers failed to do. There was a game-losing blown coverage in Atlanta. A missed third-down sack against Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck. A wide-open incompletion between Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb on an early third down in Tennessee.
There’s a reason coaches practice hypotheticals. This is a situational game. Success comes in making plays in big moments.
The list of missed plays during that four-game losing streak was long. McCarthy railed that “the biggest hole on our football team” was turnover ratio. The Packers stood at a minus-six turnover margin after 10 games, unfathomable under McCarthy.
They’re at plus-eight in turnover ratio now, climbing to sixth in the NFL. They have forced 15 turnovers in the past six games, giving just one back. The Packers won the turnover battle in five games during their win streak, with a one-to-one tie against Houston. They were 4-5-1 in the turnover battle through their first 10 games.
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So it was early Monday morning, with Rodgers wearing a new NFC North champions hat outside Ford Field’s visitors’ locker room, when he was asked what keyed the Packers run-the-table comeback. What are the six-straight-wins Packers doing that the four-straight-losses Packers didn’t? He thought a moment.
“I think,” Rodgers said, “a lot of it is situational football, but a lot of it is just mindset. I think we’ve had a different mindset once you start winning, that there is an expectation. You’re going to perform in those crunch-time situations, where we weren’t doing it on, really, in all three phases during the losing streak. Where when we needed to make plays on third down — it could be a play in the first quarter, it could be a play in the fourth quarter — we weren’t making those plays. We weren’t getting stops when we needed ‘em. We weren’t converting third downs when we needed ‘em. We were kicking field goals in the red zone.
“If you look at the (win) streak, the percentages on third down and in the red zone have been solid. But the plays when you really needed ‘em, when adversity hit, when the crowd’s getting back in the game and you’ve got to pick up a big third down, we made those plays. We made those touchdowns in the red zone, and that’s why we’ve been winning.”
If generating turnovers was the biggest midseason adjustment the Packers' defense made, Rodgers identified the offense’s biggest improvement.
The Packers were 23-for-42 (54.7 percent) in the red zone through their first 10 games. In their six-game winning streak, the Packers scored touchdowns on 17 of 24 red-zone trips (70.8 percent).
There has been no raw, statistical difference in the game’s other major situational challenge, specifically third-down offense and defense. The Packers converted 46.7 percent of third downs in their first 10 games, compared to 46.5 percent in their win streak. Their defense held opponents to 41.2 percent in the first 10 games, compared to 41.1 percent in the past six.
But the Packers’ increased efficiency in the red zone made them a more prolific offense, and a better team. Against the Lions and Seattle Seahawks, the two best teams the Packers beat during their win streak, they were 4-for-4 in the red zone both games.
In hindsight, it shouldn’t be surprising the NFL’s third-youngest roster with an average age below 26, a roster that broke camp with 13 rookies and four first-year starters, struggled early in situational football. It took time, but it’s January. Rookies aren’t really rookies anymore.
Nothing exemplified that growth more than that third-and-9 touchdown early in Sunday’s fourth quarter. Rodgers’ double-scramble touchdown that put away the Lions didn’t go to a seasoned vet. Instead, he connected with undrafted rookie Geronimo Allison.
“I think there’s a different feel to the locker room,” Rodgers said. “I think just guys, there’s a hunger that maybe wasn’t there at times over the last couple of years. There’s a great group of young guys who have brought some just really positive energy and belief in each other. The team is a close group. We hang out together, we spend time together, we care about each other. You need that to win. That’s the chemistry part that.”
Rodgers declined to compare this Packers team to the 2010 title team. Both teams overcame numerous injuries to peak in December, entering the postseason playing their best football. Doesn’t mean this playoff run will end in the same place, but the similarities are too clear to ignore.
It’s because they’ve mastered situational football in their past six games. Perhaps nothing is more important in the playoffs.
“They’re all sweet,” McCarthy said of his team’s run to the postseason. “Any time you reach a level of success of getting in the playoffs, it’s an accomplishment in the National Football League. We all understand how difficult this league is. This is a different path, and they all are. But it’s very rewarding, especially just to watch this particular team.
“I’ve talked about it continuous throughout the year. They’re made of the right stuff, they’ve got a great attitude, they bring great energy, and I think we definitely demonstrated that Sunday.”
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