On one hand, they were air traffic controllers, boasting a No. 5 ranking for passing yards allowed and No. 6 in opponent quarterback rating. But opposing running backs treated the turf like an oval track, and the Packers’ run defense was dead last in the league.
But during a rainy, fall night under the glare of the national spotlight, it all came together. Green Bay’s bend-but-don’t break defense snapped back on a Vikings offense with Christian Ponder – rather than banged-up rookie sensation Teddy Bridgewater – under center, and Matt Asiata – not the suspended Adrian Peterson – at running back in what amounted to a three-hour Packers highlight film.
Green Bay’s defense rolled up six sacks, interceptions on back-to-back possessions, a whopping 16 quarterback hits, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and a passer rating of 45.8. It also held a Minnesota ground attack that went off for 241 yards and four touchdowns a week ago against Atlanta to just 111 yards, one scrambling touchdown run by Ponder and no run longer than 11 yards.
“Going in every week, we want to create turnovers, we want to create pressure on the quarterback, we really want to get after those guys on offense,” said outside linebacker Nick Perry, who tied his career single-game high with two sacks. “Tonight we started strong and finished strong. We did a good job out there.”
By the end of the third quarter, Green Bay was winning 42-0 en route to a 42-10 final that felt even more lopsided than that. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers lit it up with three scores, including a long-range strike to Jordy Nelson. On the ground, Eddie Lacy crashed the end zone twice, running like the green and gold rhino fans remembered from last season.
But the most exciting touchdown on the night belonged to outside linebacker Julius Peppers, who dropped into coverage on a first-and-5 play at the Vikings’ 39-yard line and had Ponder fire a pass right at him. The 13-year veteran, eight-time Pro Bowler and first-year Packer took off to his left, crossing the width of the field before turning toward the end zone, getting finishing blocks from Clay Matthews and Jamari Lattimore and rolling into the end zone to put his team up 21-0.
That play made Peppers the first player in NFL history with 100 or more sacks and 10 interceptions. He downplayed that feat – calling it a “neat stat” -- preferring to paint a picture of what a performance like this means overall.
“Tonight was big,” Peppers said, surrounded by throng of media at his locker. “This was a big stretch for us – this three-game division stretch. We would’ve liked to have gotten all three of them, but two out of three is pretty good. I can’t even stress how big it was to get this win going into a long weekend. That’s the thing with us – it’s a process. We’re going to continue to improve and get better and, hopefully, by midseason or end of season, we’re going to be peaking.”
Five games into the season, it looks like a unit that’s flashed both its flaws and potential for greatness – even if Thursday’s opponent was without three starters.
Peppers wasn’t the only new face on the defense making plays. On the next series, Lattimore intercepted a pass thrown behind running back Jerick McKinnon. Though he didn’t score, it led to a Rodgers-to-Davante Adams score three plays later that put the game out of hand with 4:51 remaining in the first half.
If it was all over but the dancing, and defensive tackle Letroy Guion gave a packed house a little bit of that, too. After splitting a sack with linemate Mike Daniels to end the first half, he busted out an arm-circling, hip-swaying sack dance after his first full sack as a Packer.
“It’s something I made up at the house,” said Guion, who started 31 games over six seasons with the Vikings before signing a free agent deal over summer. “I don’t know what to call it yet, but I’ll put a name on it. Yeah, I practiced that. I was planning on getting a couple sacks tonight.
You want to get juiced up when you’re playing your old team and show them what they’re missing.”
On Thursday night, the Packers found something they’d been missing: A complete game – start to finish – on both sides of the ball.