Packers' defense finds blueprint it must follow for long playoff run

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Kevin King’s explanation, delivered through a sheepish smile, was every bit as simple as the play looked.

Which, in terms of simplicity, was rather hard to duplicate. Because as interceptions go, few look as easy as King’s in the second quarter Sunday. King played eight yards off New York Giants receiver Darius Slayton. He backpedaled only 10 more yards, sitting on Slayton’s route. By the time Giants quarterback Daniel Jones’ pass arrived, King was standing still.

He didn’t even have to move.

His pick swung momentum early in the Packers’ 31-13 win over the Giants. On a scale of one to Odell Beckham Jr. snaring a pass one-handed behind his head, King’s catch was hardly challenging. Not that King minded.

“You’ve got to catch,” he said, “the ones they throw to you.”

That, if nothing else, is what the Packers' defense accomplished Sunday.

It wasn’t a dominant afternoon. The Packers allowed 5.2 yard per play. The defense let the Giants shrink the game, failing to get off the field. The Giants were only 5-for-14 on third down, but they were 3-for-4 on fourth down.

The Giants had five more plays than the Packers. They had 13 more yards. They won time of possession.

And they lost by 18 points.

Green Bay Packers' Tramon Williams, left, intercepts a pass thrown by New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The biggest reason might be as simple as the Packers' defense catching the ball. Their win swung on three interceptions, which led to 10 points. On each of the three, the Giants rookie quarterback made poor decisions, throwing passes so questionable they made Packers defensive backs look like intended targets.

Rookie safety Darnell Savage's interception might have been easier than King’s. On third-and-18 in the fourth quarter, Savage hung back and played center field. Jones overthrew intended receiver Sterling Shepard by a country mile.

His pass happened to fall in Savage’s lap, effectively sealing victory.

Asked if it was as easy as it looked, Savage searched for an explanation. He chuckled, then settled on: “I mean, yeah. I guess so.”

This was the Giants doing things a 2-10 team does. It was a team on an eight-game losing streak showing exactly why it’s headed directly for a top-five pick in next spring’s draft. It was the NFL’s version of a cupcake week, taking candy from a baby, fishing in a barrel, whatever analogy you choose to use.

It was also the blueprint for how the Packers hope to advance in this year’s crowded NFC playoffs.

“I think our guys are always going to try to be ball-hawking and relentless in their pursuit of the football,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “That’s a big emphasis that we talk about each and every week.”

At this point, it’s clear the Packers are going to allow yards and extended drives. This is a bend-but-don’t-break defense. The Packers will rely on stiffening in the red zone, as they’ve done much of this season.

That the Giants, a terrible offense that ranked 24th in the NFL with 19.7 points per game entering Sunday, marched for scoring drives of 11, 18 and 10 plays was not surprising. Not if you’ve watch this Packers defense since the start of October. It also wasn’t surprising only one of those drives ended in the end zone. The Packers' defense solidified inside their own 30-yard line on the other two times.

What the Packers' defense does well, beyond its elasticity, is pressure the quarterback into making mistakes. Za’Darius Smith had another active game, hitting Jones five times and finishing with a tackle for loss against the Giants quarterback he felt should have counted as a sack. It’s no coincidence the rookie was erratic.

“It felt like there was pretty good pressure,” LaFleur said. “I know Za’Darius had multiple hits on him and really affected him in terms of some of those throws, some of those decisions we were able to get the interceptions.”

It’s one thing to “affect” a rookie quarterback. Quite another to throw a veteran off his game. On this cold, soggy day in New Jersey, it was enough for the Packers' defense to simply catch the football. That is the script — bend but don’t break, pass rush, turnovers — they’ll hope to follow to a deep playoff run next month, but, no, it won’t be as easy as it looked Sunday.

There are no Daniel Joneses waiting in January.

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