Packers' defensive front steals spotlight from highly touted Rams linemen
GREEN BAY - Going into the Green Bay Packers' divisional-round game against the Los Angeles Rams, one of the most eye-catching matchups between the two teams focused on the Rams defensive front and the Packers offensive line.
The giant, glittering, hypothetical marquee sign floating in the sky above Lambeau Field featured seven-time Pro Bowl, five-time All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald against All-Pro center Corey Linsley and Pro Bowl left guard Elgton Jenkins.
To that, the Packers defensive front said, “Hold my Spotted Cow.”
The Packers' pass rush sacked Rams quarterback Jared Goff four times in their 32-18 victory, which was the most he had been taken down in a game all season. Donald, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and the Rams defense front, however, failed to sack Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers once. His clean jersey could’ve been the face of a Tide campaign.
The Packers’ pass rush was "relentless all game and I know we weren't always getting pressure on Jared,” head coach Matt LaFleur said. “I thought L.A., give them credit, got a lot of respect, obviously, I know those guys very, very well. They did a good job of having plays that got the ball out of his hands quickly and then their receivers made some plays. Their back made a lot of plays.
"But our guys stayed resilient up front and kept giving great energy, great effort.”
Three of the Packers’ four sacks came in the second half. Arguably one of the most important came early in the fourth quarter. With 11 minutes remaining in the game, the Packers were up 25-18. The Packers had failed to score in any capacity on two consecutive drives. The Rams had the ball at their own 32-yard line and had already picked up two first downs.
On second-and-10, defensive lineman Dean Lowry managed to penetrate the pocket, flushing Goff and forcing him to step up. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark spun away from center Austin Blythe and wrapped up the quarterback for the defense’s third sack of the game.
“Dean got great penetration on my other sack coming inside,” Clark said. “They were setting us pretty hard inside and Dean just crossed face, took a chance and got Goff flushed out. I came around and made the play.
“That's our game and that's what our defense is about. We've got to win, we've gotta just keep winning first down and when we do that, we get guys in long situations and when we're able to do that, we got guys that can rush and get after the quarterback.”
Clark’s sack brought up a third-and-16, which the Rams were unable to convert. On the ensuing drive, the Packers took advantage of the momentum shift set by Clark and drove 73 yards to set up wide receiver Allen Lazard for a touchdown.
Second-year outside linebacker Rashan Gary also spent plenty of time buzzing around Goff, registering 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and a tackle for loss. In the third quarter, Gary beat 15-year veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth inside and met Clark in the broken pocket to take down Goff together. Saturday’s win over the Rams marked Gary’s most productive game since Week 13 against the Philadelphia Eagles when he had 1.5 sacks.
“When the ball stops, when we're huddled up, he's always either talking to himself or talking to us,” Clark said of Gary. “Telling us the game is won up front, you know what I'm saying? He got a lot of confidence in himself. He had a really good year. He's been balling. So he had a really good game today. The guy, man, he's gonna be a really good player. He's gotta just keep putting in the work and doing his thing, but I'm excited for RG, for everything that's coming to him.”
Gary stepped up once again during the Rams’ final possession. With more than 6 and a half minutes left in the game, the Packers were up by two scores, but Rams return specialist Nsimba Webster ripped a 38-yard kickoff return to give the offense solid field position at their 41.
Nevertheless, the Packers defense stood tall.
After converting on third down, Goff threw the ball incomplete to wide receiver Robert Woods. On the following play, Goff attempted to go back to Woods on a screen pass, but cornerback Jaire Alexander read the play to perfection and tackled Woods for a loss of three yards. Alexander’s play allowed the Packers' pass rush to thrive on the next two downs – on third-and-13, a pass breakup on an incompletion from outside linebacker Preston Smith and on fourth-and-13, a solo sack for Gary.
“They had a couple drives where it was critical that we needed a stop,” Clark said. “We got those stops. I got a sack on a critical second or third down, one of those and RG played great. Z (Za’Darius Smith) played great. So P (Preston Smith) got a chip ball late, so we've all been just trying to get better and all that stuff was huge.”
While Goff and the Rams offense found success in the quick passing game sporadically, LaFleur touted the defense’s ability to move on quickly to the next play. Even when the game got close, the Packers defense managed to shift the momentum and allow the offense twiden the gap.
“It's that resiliency and that mindset that we need to have every game and it's gotta be move on to the next play,” LaFleur said. “I do think when times get tough in this league, as a coach, as a player, you've just got to focus on doing your job to the best of your ability and rely on the guy next to you doing the same thing and having that same mindset. That's what I'm so proud about our guys.”