On Sunday, in a 46-16 victory over the Oakland Raiders at Lambeau Field, it was two inside linebackers making big contributions, helping the Packers secure a first-round playoff bye and continue to chance of a perfect season.
Robert Francois and D.J. Smith, making their second straight starts together while starters Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk recover from calf injuries, combined to force three of the Raiders' five turnovers. Two led to Packers touchdowns and another prevented a Raiders score.
So good was their play that it is difficult to believe they are "backup" players.
"Around here, the expectation is if anybody goes down or gets banged up or something, we've got guys that can jump in and play right away," said outside linebacker Erik Walden. "And they're expected to contribute. And those guys, you've got to take your hats off, they're doing a hell of a job."
Francois, who replaced the injured Hawk two weeks ago in Detroit, was uncertain about what his role would be right up until Sunday. Hawk returned to practice late in the week and was suited up for the game, but remained on the sideline as the Packers built a big first-half lead. Coach Mike McCarthy said his aim was to have Hawk play in the second half but the game dictated otherwise.
"I had him on a pitch count for 30 reps," said McCarthy. "He was disappointed he didn't get to play, understandably so — A.J.'s a fierce competitor. But I just felt with the score being 31-0 that it was smart to give A.J. a chance to rest. So, he'll be ready to go Wednesday."
That gave Francois a chance to seize an opportunity — again.
After making a leaping interception against the Lions on Thanksgiving, his interception of a Carson Palmer pass in the end zone late in the second quarter ended the Raiders' best scoring chance of the first half.
"I just saw the tight end (Kevin Boss) bending around me, so I rode inside with him and Carson threw it right there," said Francois. "So, I just jumped up and got it. … I kind of expected it to come my way because he was staring at him the whole time, so I felt like he was probably going to throw it there."
Francois forced a much less surprising turnover in the third quarter when he said he was just trying to wrap up fullback Marcel Reece after a short catch deep in Raiders territory. But as he put his arms around Reece from behind, the ball shot loose. The ensuing scrum for the ball ended up with Walden returning it 5 yards for a touchdown.
The score gave the Packers a 43-7 lead and broke the previous team record (461) for points in a season. It also gave the Packers a franchise-record for the number of players (19) to have scored touchdowns in a season.
The rookie Smith might not be one of those players, but he has made plays in just about every other way since taking over for Bishop in the first quarter of the Thanksgiving game. After recording seven tackles in that game, he tied for the team lead with nine tackles last week against the Giants.
Against the Raiders, he took it a step further with 10 tackles and an interception that set the tone on the first drive of the game.
Smith thwarted a play-action pass when Palmer was pressured by Clay Matthews then threw woefully short. Smith, simply covering his spot in the flat, bobbled then caught the pass intended for receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. Two plays later, Ryan Grant scored on a 47-yard touchdown run for the first score just 3:03 into the game.
Smith also was active as a blitzer and displayed his knowledge for playing his position by snuffing out a screen pass and reading and stuffing a shovel pass attempt to Reece on a third-and-5 in the second quarter.
With Francois and Smith, the Packers have barely missed a beat on defense, showing that the value of its effectiveness is not in the yards it allows but how properly it is played — regardless of the names on the jerseys.
"It's really a testament to this defense and the players we have, and this coaching staff, and everybody in this organization," said Matthews. "If one person goes down, one person is ready to step up and that's exactly what they've done these last two weeks, and have filled in seamlessly."
The Packers allowed 355 yards to the Raiders, but held them out of the end zone over the first seven drives as they built a 34-0 lead. With four interceptions of Palmer, including ones from Charles Woodson and Sam Shields, the Packers raised their league-leading total to 27. Three teams rank a distant second with 18.
The unexpected ones, however, were from Smith and Francois at a position many thought was one of the weakest on the depth chart headed into the season. Not anymore.
"We here in the organization know what we can do and the coaches let us know that, so we try to keep that outside stuff outside," said Francois, a second-year player who was released three times by the Packers in 2010 among bouncing around from the practice squad to the active roster. "We're here to make plays and hopefully get a chance to get out there and show what we got."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org