That was certainly the case Sunday as several defensive youngsters played with poise and an edge to stop the Cleveland Browns in their tracks. Without Matthews and Perry, A.J. Hawk found his role as the grizzled veteran in the middle accentuated. Suddenly he was working with guys like Jamari Lattimore, Nate Palmer and Andy Mulumba. But to hear Hawk tell it, Green Bay's defense didn't miss a beat against the Browns.
"I think all of the young guys played really well today," Hawk said. "We held them to 13 points and we would have liked to have kept it at six but, anytime you hold a team to 13, your defense is doing something right. I can't say enough about how well the young guys played today. They kept their composure throughout the whole game and we never really had any glitches.
"The two guys on the outside, Andy Mulumba (and) Nate Palmer, were great and I have to give them a lot of credit. For their first real game-type action, they really executed well all day. Jamari Lattimore also played well and he's been around a bit longer than Mulumba and Palmer. Jamari had a big game last week against Baltimore and again today. I love playing next to him and that's the thing, next guy up. We talk about that all the time but all those guys really stepped up today."
Early in the third quarter with the Browns struggling to cut into a 17-3 deficit, quarterback Brandon Weeden found himself looking for an open receiver with the Packers' defense swarming around him. Before Weeden could release the ball, Lattimore lowered the boom to record his first career sack. It was one of his 11 tackles, including nine solo. Palmer's six tackles included three solo. Mulumba was credited with just one assisted tackle but was strong against the run.
"It was a great feeling to be out there today," said Palmer. "I'm thankful that I got the opportunity and I went out there and just tried to do what they asked me to do and to perform within the scheme of the defense. I think things worked out pretty well for the defense today. A.J. Hawk was in the middle and he was helping us out in the middle of the game, telling us what to expect. Veterans like A.J. and the guys on the D-line know what's coming up. I felt I did OK but there's always room for improvement. That's foremost and what I'll be watching when we come back and watch the film. I'm going to be really critical of myself and try to improve."
The defense held the Browns to 83 rushing yards and 149 through the air. Weeden, who did enjoy a bit more success in the second half, frequently was harassed by Green Bay's defense, leading to his miserable 48.6 passer rating. It also led to an interception in the second quarter when Cleveland decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Packers' 37. With veteran Ryan Pickett providing the pressure, House registered his first career interception.
"I'm just trying to get better," House said with a broad smile. "On the pick, we had great coverage and they threw it and I'm just trying to be aggressive down there, especially in the red zone. I'm gonna grab a little bit and I was lucky they didn't call it but I just play the ball. If they get to the red zone and it's first-and-goal with the ball at the 4, as a defense we feel like they're not going to get in."
House broke up two other passes, including a real gem in the corner of the end zone to frustrate the Browns yet again.
"Davon House is getting better," said coach Mike McCarthy. "He's done some really good things on special teams and now you're seeing the consistency, particularly on passes defended and his opportunities on defense. He's a very talented young man. He just kind of went through an injury phase earlier in his career. We're seeing a guy in his second or third year that we preach, try to plan, instruct, train and watch these guys take off. He's definitely one of our ascending young players."
House was quick to point out the play of the defensive line and the linebackers in front of him for contributing to his success.
"Once again, I point to the other side of this room, the D-line," said House. "We've got one of the best defensive lines in the league and they make my job a lot easier. Once again, we held them to less than 100 yards as a team. Hats off to our D-line again."
What about all the injuries and the pressure that puts on the younger players?
"We really don't look at the injuries. Our young guys are excited to get into the action, guys like Myles White and Nate Palmer. Nate, especially, since he was a late draft pick and now he's got his feet wet. You wait so long for the opportunity so when it comes you just got to shine."
So far, McCarthy and veterans like Hawk and Tramon Williams like what they see in this year's edition of the Packers' defense, no matter how many young guys get thrown into the mix.
"You want to play good defense every week, but it's vital to play great defense at home," said McCarthy. "It's something that we believe in, our crowd was behind us. They were outstanding in the third-down situations, particularly in some of the fourth-down situations. We even had a couple of false starts there, so you have to give credit to the crowd noise on that. Our defense is doing a lot of good things and what I'm excited about, you know, the challenge of injury has brought the opportunity for a lot of young players to play. So we're not only improving Monday through Saturday, we're improving the youth of our football team on Sundays and I think that's going to be big for us down the line."
"I think we're getting a little chemistry to our defense," said Williams. "Guys have an attitude that we're gonna stop guys and just put together a dominant performance and try to do it on a consistent basis. I know we've done it in spurts in different years but we're trying to be a consistent, dominant defense. Davon's been here for awhile and he's been learning. Now he's getting his opportunity and he's showcasing what he can do. Same with Micah Hyde. He had an excellent preseason for us and he's getting the opportunity to get out there and get some snaps. Both of those guys are playing well for us and that's a good sign."
A very good sign, indeed.