GREEN BAY – Dean Lowry’s legs were burning. It takes a different set of muscles, he discovered, for defensive linemen to sprint 62 yards. That was his excuse, anyway.
Lowry watched himself on the video board Sunday, enjoying the moment during his first touchdown since he was a freshman at Northwestern, but the Green Bay Packers defensive end knew what he’d have to do once he reached the end zone.
That Lambeau Leap was calling. Lowry’s legs were screaming right back.
“My vert there was pretty minimal,” Lowry said. “I was definitely gassed afterward.”
No matter, Lowry’s 62-yard fumble return for a touchdown changed Sunday’s game. It was the kind of play this Packers defense has made too sparingly in 2017. Lowry’s second-quarter touchdown helped push the Packers to a 26-20 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It was only the Packers' second defensive score this season, their first since cornerback Damarious Randall returned an interception for a touchdown in Dallas. That was in early October, one week before quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone. Without Rodgers, the Packers have been waiting for the defense to make a big play.
Lowry delivered it, but he had some help. Fellow second-year defensive lineman Kenny Clark was about to sack Jameis Winston when the Bucs quarterback tried to get rid of the football. Off balance, the ball floated backward out of his hand, and Lowry was waiting for it.
“It was a play-action play,” Lowry said, “where Kenny Clark sacked him, the ball came out. I got the ball, I ran it about 40-50 yards — probably a little more (the return was 62 yards) — and then just saw myself on the big screen. I was like, ‘All right, here’s my chance, Lambeau Leap right here!’ So I got up there and did it, and it was pretty cool.”
Clark wasn’t the only rusher to pressure Winston. The Packers entered Sunday with 22 sacks on the season. They took advantage of a depleted Bucs offensive line to sack Winston seven times, the second time in franchise history they’ve reached that mark in a single game.
The Bucs' patchwork offensive line was unable to stymie a Packers pass rush that had ranked in the league’s bottom half. They placed starting center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson on injured reserve this past week.
With the pressure mounting, Clark said he noticed Winston become more agitated as the game progressed.
“He was wobbling a little bit,” Clark said. “Especially at the end of the second quarter, and we saw that. I think we frustrated him a little bit. We just had him thinking out there, and trying to get his eyes down to look at the rush.”
Clay Matthews, who missed last week’s game with a groin injury, was perhaps the biggest beneficiary. The veteran outside linebacker had 2½ sacks Sunday, his first time with that many sacks in a game since the Packers traveled to Tampa Bay late in the 2014 season.
Matthews now has six sacks on the season. After a seven-week drought with no sacks earlier this season, he has 3 1/2 sacks in the past two games he played.
“It was great to have him back,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s so disruptive as a player. … He’s an impact player, and has been for a long time here.”
Confident call: McCarthy said he considered going for it on a late fourth down in the fourth quarter, a risky decision that might have prevented Sunday’s game from going to overtime.
With just more than two minutes left, the Packers faced a fourth-and-1 from the Bucs’ 5-yard line. They had all three timeouts remaining, meaning if the Packers didn’t convert they would be able to stop the clock with the Bucs backed up deep in their own territory.
Instead, McCarthy sent out his field-goal unit for a 22-yard kick that forced overtime in a game the Packers eventually won 26-20. Crosby’s kick tied the game at 20 with 2:01 left.
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PACKERS CHAT: Ryan Wood at 11 a.m. Monday
“You think about every situation,” McCarthy said. “You think about the call you have, you think about how far it was, and so forth. Frankly, I thought the fact that we were able to get our defense off the field for just a breather, I was very confident in kicking it and playing defense. It worked out.
“Obviously, it was the right play.”
Injury report: Clark made it through most of Sunday’s game playing on his sprained ankle, but not without missing a series in the second half.
Clark played for the first time Sunday since spraining his ankle two weeks earlier against the Baltimore Ravens, missing only last week’s game in Pittsburgh. He picked up where he left off in a strong season, finishing with two sacks and six tackles.
Ultimately, Clark said, the ankle felt good coming out of the game.
"In the beginning of the game,” Clark said, “it was all right. Then some of the times when the offense had longer drives, it got kind of stiff and started hurting a little bit. Then I got rolled up a little bit coming out in the second half, and I had to get off of it for a little bit. But for the most part, it was pretty good."
BOX SCORE: Packers 26, Bucs 20 (OT)
GAME BLOG: Review Silverstein's live coverage
Clark wasn’t the only Packers defender playing through pain. Cornerback Davon House, mostly matched against Bucs receiver Mike Evans, played through a shoulder injury. The sore shoulder was especially difficult against Evans’ physical style of play.
Knowing the necessity of the Packers winning Sunday to keep their playoff hopes alive, House said he was determined to stay on the field.
Rodgers watch: McCarthy was pleased with how Rodgers looked Saturday in his first practice since breaking his right collarbone.
The Packers used their second and final designation to return from injured reserve on Rodgers, who practiced for the first time since shoulder surgery six weeks earlier. The two-time MVP is eligible to return in two weeks against the Carolina Panthers.
“I think it definitely gives your football team a shot,” McCarthy said. “I know it was good for everybody, but it was really good for him, too. I know he really enjoyed being back out there in a practice climate."