Role players take center stage for Packers

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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Football is mainly a game of stars and playmakers. Witness Aaron Rodgers carrying the Green Bay Packers.

But in the one-and-done postseason, other players need to come through too, and that’s especially true for a Packers defense that’s simply trying to survive two more games.

For the Packers to advance to and win the Super Bowl over the next three weeks, they’ll have to do it in shootouts. In that kind of game just one or two stops, or a drive or two that end in field goals rather than touchdowns, can be the difference as long as Rodgers and his offense keep putting up points.

So it was Sunday in the Packers’ 34-31 upset of Dallas in the divisional round of the playoffs. In this game, the Packers got a handful of key plays from guys whose roles have varied since the start of the season in September: Micah Hyde, Nick Perry and Joe Thomas.

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Yes, teams that win championships need their stars to come through, and the Packers’ defense will need playmaking from a group that includes Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Julius Peppers.

But sometimes role players can make a difference, and in the Packers’ shootout at Dallas, Hyde, Perry and Thomas helped provide Rodgers just enough room to pull out the win.

Hyde was one of the heroes of the game, and not just because of his third-quarter interception in the red zone that took at least three and maybe seven points off the board for the Cowboys.

Hyde also had a big sack on the game’s first possession that got the Packers off to a good start. The Cowboys had moved into Packers territory in four plays and looked headed for a quick 7-0. But Hyde’s sack on a blitz from the slot corner put the Cowboys in a bad down and distance (second and 16), and they couldn’t make up the ground in two plays. So they kicked a field goal.

Three points in a game like this was almost as good as a stop, as Rodgers showed when he answered with a touchdown. The Packers played from the lead essentially for the rest of the game, which was their best chance of protecting coordinator Dom Capers’ undermanned defense.

Hyde also had good coverage on Dallas’ slick little slot receiver, Cole Beasley, on the third down of a key three-and-out early in the second quarter. Dak Prescott’s throw went awry because left tackle Tyron Smith bumped him on the delivery, but even if it had been on the money Hyde was in position to break it up. That empty Cowboys’ possession opened the door to the Packers taking a 21-3. They’d need every bit of it.

Perry might have been the Packers’ best pass rusher Sunday and had one of his team’s two sacks. But he made one of the biggest defensive plays of the game, on the Cowboys’ final possession, when he batted down Prescott’s pass on third-and-3 at the Packers’ 33.

Prescott had Dez Bryant on a quick slant, and if they’d connected it would have been a first down with 40 seconds left. The Cowboys would have had time to possibly score a touchdown, and at worst kick the game-tying field goal as time ran out. Instead, their field goal on the next play left Rodgers with 35 seconds to win the game, and he did.

Thomas, who played 67 of the defense’s 69 snaps, also made a big third-down play that saved the Packers four points. Late in the first half, Prescott had the Cowboys in scoring position at the Packers’ 15, and on third and 10 tried to hit tight end Jason Witten on a back-shoulder seam route. But Thomas, playing in zone coverage, made a diving play on the ball to break up the pass. Field goal instead of touchdown. That’s a win for the Packers.

This week the Packers face the NFL’s top-scoring team, the Atlanta Falcons, in the NFC championship game. It’s a monumental challenge for Capers, and he surely will need some playmaking from his big-name players.

But Hyde, Perry and even Thomas have become important players down the stretch for the Packers’ beleaguered defense as well — remember Hyde’s game-clinching interception at Detroit on New Year’s Day? And another high-scoring game could turn on one stop, one third down. You never know who might have to make that play for the Packers to advance.

He sees all

Rodgers’ physical talents were obvious to all Sunday while he ripped the Cowboys for 356 yards passing and twice broke a tie with field-goal drives in the final four minutes. But he created some big problems for Dallas because of his awareness, too. Of course, it’s something he has been doing regularly for several years now.

Rodgers’ attunement to free plays on offside and 12-men penalties puts major stress on defensive players and coaches. It makes it difficult for them to get good jumps on the snap count and to substitute based on down and distance. And on Sunday, the problems it created for the Cowboys led directly to the Packers’ first touchdown.

It started on a third-and-5 play. The Cowboys had stuffed Aaron Ripkowski for no gain, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli wanted to get pass-defending personnel on the field for third down. But Rodgers saw the mass substitution, and since the Packers didn’t sub anyone, he didn’t have to wait.

So he rushed his teammates to the line and snapped the ball. In the confusion, he caught defensive end Benson Mayowa still running to the sideline. Rodgers’ free deep shot to Davante Adams went incomplete, but the five-yard penalty allowed for an easy first down.

Three snaps later Rodgers induced David Irving to jump offside, took a free shot to Richard Rodgers and connected on a 34-yard touchdown. That put the Packers up 7-3.

Right now Rodgers is in a zone where he seems to be seeing almost everything.

Extra point

When you’re an undermanned defense trying to stop a top offense, every yard counts. So Mason Crosby was a weapon for the Packers on Sunday above and beyond his clutch 56- and 51-yard field goals. With all the scoring, the Packers had to kick off six times, and Crosby hit all six for touchbacks. That forced the Cowboys to start each of those possessions with 75 yards ahead of them, rather than possibly returning the ball out past the 30. Five or 10 yards might not seem like much, but it matters. Anything to force the offense to execute on another play or two.

Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1 and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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