LOS ANGELES - If the Green Bay Packers are going to fill the emptiness they felt walking away from a 29-27 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, it will have to come from the defensive seeds they planted at the Memorial Coliseum on Sunday afternoon.
Over the next four weeks or so, there must be growth or the inspired effort the defense put together against the NFL’s only undefeated team will prove to be the result of nothing more than timing and circumstance.
How many times do you get two weeks to prepare for the most complex offense in the NFL? How many times do you play on the road in a 75,000-seat stadium in which half the fans are your own?
How many times during a season do you get to play with a full roster, not a single player limited because of injury?
Maybe one of those things might happen during a season, but for all of them to happen at the same time turned out to be a great advantage for a team desperately wanting to get off on the right foot at the start of an impossible five-game stretch.
“I think we came out and hit them in their mouth,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “We played football the way we were supposed to play. We just didn’t maintain it. We didn’t have it in some critical moments.
“When you’re playing against a 7-0 team and you have them on the ropes, you have to knock them out. You can’t let them stick around. We let them stick around and we lost.”
The defense, despite Daniels’ assessment, did enough to win. It held the Rams to six points in the first half and limited them to two field goals on three fourth-quarter drives, the last a concession on the Rams’ part that it wasn’t going to be easy to score a touchdown from the Packers’ 13-yard line and it was better to just run it and wind down the clock.
Despite surrendering the lead on Greg Zuerlein’s 34-yard field goal, the Packers had left quarterback Aaron Rodgers 2 minutes, 5 seconds to win the game. An offense can’t really ask for much more than that.
But it never happened because running back Ty Montgomery, defying orders to take a knee on the ensuing kickoff, fumbled away the return and the defense had nothing left when it needed to stop the Rams from getting a game-clinching first down.
“It’s really disappointing,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “You think as a defense we only hold them to those three points. We’re only down two. We’re going to go down and win. That’s the confidence we have in ‘12’ and our offense.
“It’s really frustrating because of that. Feel like we battled in that locker room, we invested so much time coming out here early and to end up on the short side of it is a terrible feeling.”
That was probably why numerous players said after the game they hope there is a rematch in the playoffs. Barring the 8-0 Rams’ total collapse, the game would be at the Coliseum where the fan ratio might be the same.
It’s all possible, but it won’t happen unless the defense that limited the Rams to its lowest number of yards (416) and fewest completions in a home game this season, plays with the same aggressiveness, energy and desire to get to the quarterback that it showed against the Rams.
“I felt like we knew we could play with them,” cornerback Kevin King said. “In this league, you never want to give away games like that, games where you could have won. You always want to be on the ‘W’ side.
“But there are learning things from every game.”
What made this game different than any other the defense has played was that coordinator Mike Pettine’s unit came out determined to stop NFL leading rusher Todd Gurley and pressure quarterback Jared Goff with everything it had on third down.
What made it different was that rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander gave the defense a huge lift with his outstanding man-to-man coverage, battling one of the fastest receivers in the game, Brandin Cooks, down after down. Alexander finished third on the team in tackles with seven and broke up five passes.
It was his first performance since injuring his groin against Buffalo on Sept. 30.
“I didn’t know what film they’re watching to make them throw at him that many times,” King said. “He’s coming off the injury and they might have thought he was a step slower. Shoot, that brings the dog out in you, right there. That brought it out of him.
“Just learn how to stack it.”
The presence of three solid man-to-man corners seemed to change everything for Pettine, who moved all of the corners around, including putting veteran Tramon Williams in the slot. It allowed Williams to blitz Goff, something he had not shown in previous games and it kept the Rams quarterback guessing.
On most passing third downs, Pettine stacked seven guys at the line of scrimmage and made Goff guess which ones were coming. Early on, he brought inside linebacker Blake Martinez and safety Jermaine Whitehead. Later, he brought Williams and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
While all of that was occurring, defensive linemen Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels and Dean Lowry were pushing the pocket and making Goff dodge pass rushers. Matthews played one of his best games, finishing with seven tackles, a sack, a quarterback hit and several pressures.
Asked about Pettine’s plan, coach Mike McCarthy said, “I thought Mike, I thought the defensive coaches, players, I thought they had a hell of a plan.”
The only thing that was missing was the victory.
“We put everything into this game,” linebacker Nick Perry said. “Nothing changes now. We have a tough schedule ahead of us. We’ve got to get back and correct what we did wrong and continue to push forward.
“It’s got to be a learning experience.”
And it won’t mean a whole lot if this game doesn’t lead to greater things in the very near future.
"It better because that's the best team in the NFL and we hung toe to toe with them and had a chance at the end to win it,” Matthews said. “We've got to take that moving forward. I know we lost, but we've got to take that capability and move it forward.
“We've got New England next week and we know that they're one of the best, if not the best AFC team. So we're going to have to show up again next week and this time get the win."