GREEN BAY – Jason Simmons greeted Tremon Smith to the secondary room inside 1265 Lombardi Ave. with a simple message: Confidence is key. Have that swagger, good or bad.
Smith arrived from Kansas City early in the week and was thrown into a group, and a defense, which had already produced five turnovers and six sacks through two games. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and his staff had already put an emphasis on turnovers since the start of field work in May.
Coming in, Smith was learning the playbook, names – the attitude – but noticed something else.
“It’s all love over here,” he said. “Really just everybody trusting each other and everybody is one of 11. It’s not one person trying to do more or less.”
It’s perhaps one of the better compliments the group could receive, and Smith saw it play out in front of him Sunday as the Packers turned the Denver Broncos over three times and sacked Joe Flacco a half dozen times in a 27-16 victory. The big plays, several coming on key third downs, stifled momentum for the visitors while giving the Packers' offense chances to create breathing room.
“Just came in, and that’s cool to get that outside praise,” corner Jaire Alexander said of Smith’s observation. He then noted how Smith saved a kickoff return touchdown, streaking across the field to knock Broncos kick returner Diontae Spencer out of bounds after a 60-yard return. The Packers would then force a punt on a Preston Smith sack on third-and-10.
“He stepped up,” Alexander said. “That’s a testament to our guys. We play for each other. There’s no selfishness.”
One locker over, Darnell Savage slowly peeled off tape. He agreed with Smith’s sentiment. There was Alexander stripping Broncos tight end Noah Fant of the ball on a 4-yard completion on third-and-3, setting up a Packers score. And Savage's first career interception came on a wobbly Flacco ball, with the rookie sliding his hands just under "The Duke" to end a Denver drive in the third quarter.
“Definitely. And it makes it fun,” Savage said. “We all out there together. Everybody does their job and all of a sudden you did your job and you punched the ball, you did a little extra and the ball comes out and everybody’s excited. I don’t think it’s necessarily a thing of anybody going out of their way to make plays or anything like that, but it’s just how we’ve been practicing and how we’ve been preparing and just the way we carry ourselves. I think it’s carried over to the games.”
Linebacker Blake Martinez likened the feel defensively to a fever, and now the defense has created eight turnovers through three weeks, which puts them on pace for 42 for the year. By comparison, the Packers forced 15 all of last year and have not had more than 27 the last seven years.
The emphasis Pettine talked about was created in practice, but the “get the ball” mentality is reinforced in meetings and when walking about the facility. Kevin King said it has translated to game day thusly.
In the instant it takes to size up a play, the following processes are thought about:
- Where the help is.
- What move is he about to make.
- Reading the ball carrier to make a proper tackle.
- Down and distance.
Now, get the ball is part of the running code.
That’s how an intangible emphasis becomes tangible. It’s why Preston Smith is swiping at Flacco’s right arm and forcing a fumble rather than just trying to bring the quarterback down.
There is a fever, no question, and it’s a familiar one for Tramon Williams.
He was part of a defense that forced a league-high 40 turnovers in Dom Capers’ first year as defensive coordinator in 2009 that produced the league’s No. 7 overall and No. 2 scoring defense. The next year, 32 turnovers helped the Packers to the fifth-ranked defense and a Super Bowl championship.
Williams knows there’s more to be a total, winning defense than just turnovers, however.
In 2011 the Packers forced 38 turnovers and had a plus-24 differential – but were the worst unit in football in yards allowed and No. 19 in points allowed. That showed in a 37-20 divisional-round home loss to the New York Giants after a 15-1 regular season.
And Williams knows stauncher tests await in Carson Wentz on Thursday, Dak Prescott after that and Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers in the not-too-distant future.
Tremon Smith knows this all too well, also.
Last year in Kansas City, Mahomes led the No. 1 total offense and the No. 1 scoring offense en route to becoming league MVP. But on defense? They were No. 31 overall and No. 24 in scoring – and couldn’t get the job done in crunch time in the AFC Championship game as New England outscored them 37-31.
“Last year we struggled a little bit and it wasn’t bad vibes, but it was always tension,” Smith recalled with a slight head shake. “We’re having more fun. It’s way more fun here. It’s that confident swagger. It carries on and goes on from each one of us.”
But for now, Packers defense is about getting the ball – and they’re doing that at a league-best rate.
“If you just watch the film, you constantly see guys – whether it’s in the pile, whether it’s ‘Ja’ making just a tackle – you just see guys punching at the ball, ripping at the ball, picking up the ball when it’s on the ground even when it’s an incomplete pass,” Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “You just see guys being all about the ball. That stuff that carries over from practice. That’s how we practiced this whole camp and the whole preseason. Whenever you’re doing that it just comes second nature. Guy running at you, you take a swing at the ball, you never know. It might come out. A lot came out (Sunday).”