Defense Developing into Decisive Unit

The performance during the last five games has been a bit like the six-game run to a Super Bowl championship in 2010. Two years ago, Aaron Rodgers and the offense weren't great every week. It's the same story this year, but a young and improving defense has come to the rescue.

DETROIT – In 2010, when the Green Bay Packers marched to the Super Bowl championship, Aaron Rodgers got the headlines but the defense was what routinely carried the water.

During their six-game run to the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the Packers allowed 17, 3, 16, 21, 14 and 25 points. That's 16 points per game against a gauntlet of Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Cutler and Ben Roethlisberger.

Maybe, just maybe, the Packers are rounding into that kind of form on that side of the ball.

The turnovers aren't coming like snowflakes in a blizzard, like in 2010, but Green Bay's defense is showing a championship mentality. During a five-game winning streak that has the Packers knocking on the door of the NFC North-leading Bears, Green Bay has allowed 24, 20, 15, 17 and 20 points. That's 19.2 points per game. No, that's not dominant, but it's been good enough to help the Packers survive a gauntlet of injuries and keep them in prime playoff position until star players like Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings, Cedric Benson and Charles Woodson return.

"I don't like to compare the years," cornerback Tramon Williams said after an outstanding personal performance. "Obviously, we're going to get the comparison because something great happened that year. We're just playing, trying to play technique-sound. Guys are in the film room, knowing what's going on, knowing how they're going to attack us. That's all we're doing. We're just out there trying to get better with every down we play. We've got a lot of young guys out there and a lot of guys are getting a lot of experience. I think it's going to help us in the long run."

Green Bay's defense, counting on major contributions from six defenders who are rookies or second-year players and situational contributions from a few other young players, was sensational in a 24-20 win over Detroit at Ford Field.

Football is the ultimate team sport. Some days, Rodgers' overwhelming greatness is what's needed. Some days, his gifted pass-catchers are no match for helpless secondaries. And when none of those two are true, it's the defense that has to carry the water.

And that's exactly what Green Bay did against a Detroit team needing a season-saving victory.

Matthew Stafford, one of the game's top quarterbacks, was held to 43.6 percent accuracy (17-of-39) and a passer rating of 54.0 (266 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions). Since his rookie season of 2009, he's never had a worse completion percentage and has had just one lower passer rating.

Calvin Johnson, the best receiver in the NFL today and on course to become arguably the best of this generation, didn't have a single ball thrown his way from an 18-minute stretch spanning his third-quarter touchdown and his meaningless 30-yard gain on the last play.

Tight end Tony Scheffler and receiver Titus Young, two players the Lions depend on to make plays to burn defenses focusing on Johnson, caught 3-of-16 passes for 46 yards and two interceptions.

A defense without Clay Matthews managed five sacks.

It's not just the individual numbers. The Lions went 0-for-2 in the red zone, and no defensive segment was as important as the one late in the fourth quarter.

With Detroit leading 17-14, Stafford had the Lions on the doorstep of a potential season-changing win. A third-and-1 completion to Ryan Broyles gained 27 yards and a second-and-8 connection to Young was good for 24. That made it first-and-goal at the 10 and Green Bay was on life support.

Instead, Erik Walden stopped Mikel Leshoure for 3 yards and Brad Jones stuffed Leshoure for minus-2. That made it third-and-goal from the 9, and Casey Hayward was all over Young for the incompletion. The 27-yard field goal made it 20-14 but kept it a one-score game.

"That was real big," safety Morgan Burnett said. "If they score that touchdown, who's to say what would have happened? We stopped them from scoring that touchdown, the offense did a great job of moving all the way down to get a big-time, game-winning touchdown. That was big. That's how a team finishes."

Still, after Rodgers' winning touchdown to Randall Cobb, 1:55 remained on the clock – plenty of time for Stafford. In his last 25 games, Stafford's record was 14-11 – and exactly half of those wins came on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. In the fourth quarter this season, Detroit led the NFL with 118 points, 14 touchdowns and 1,200 yards – a stunning 404 yards more than second-ranked Oakland. Stafford had 10 touchdowns and one interception during the fourth quarter.

If this were last year, the Lions would have gone right down the field for the game-winning field goal. Heck, they might have scored a touchdown. Instead, with Williams taking care of Johnson, Stafford threw incomplete to Scheffler, Young, Young and Scheffler for a four-and-out series that essentially ended the game.

"It just shows you guys are pulling together," Burnett said. "We're all one unit. Offense, defense, special teams – we all work together. We help pick each other up. There are times where the defense, we might be struggling but the offense will pick us up. When the offense is struggling, the defense picks them up. Sometimes, the special teams pick us up. We all work together. Coaches told us going into this game that we had to finish. We knew it was going to come down to the last second. No matter what happens, just keep playing. You're going to face adversity through the course of the game. Just keep playing all the way to the end."

And that bodes well for the end of the season.

"When everyone starts to come back," Williams said, "then hopefully we take off and go where we want to go."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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