Defense Playing with New Attitude

In the two games since the bye, the Packers' defense has shown flashes of dominance against a pair of quality offenses. Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers continue to lead the way for that rising unit. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY)

It’s only been two games, but the Green Bay Packers’ defense has used the bye week as a divide of sorts. A line in the sand. On one side, the first eight games of the season and what we thought we knew about that erratic unit. It was among the league leaders in interceptions, but pressure on the quarterback was inconsistent and its run defense got exposed more than Kim Kardashian’s back side.

But these last two games, this defense has been decidedly different. Dominant. Ruthless. And doing things we didn’t know it was capable of. It didn’t break the Internet — the predicted consequence of a photo of Kardashian’s bum that went viral — but it thoroughly destroyed two offenses and broke the spirit of a couple of fan bases, if not the players themselves.

“Mind-set and attitude,” said linebacker Julius Peppers, whose 52-yard pick-six was the defensive highlight of Green Bay’s 53-20 thrashing of the Eagles. “It’s the things that we talked about a couple weeks ago before we took a break. Mind-set and attitude, that’s the main thing. That’s what defense is. So we’re getting better in those areas and it shows. We got off to a fast start defensively, we got off to a fast start offensively. So, they had to get out of some of the things that they like to do. The tempo wasn’t as fast, so it was just – to be cliché – a great team effort.”

Peppers continues to be at the center of that effort. His score was his second interception return for a touchdown this season and the sixth of his 13-year career. A week after he stirred emotions with a pregame speech, it was his play – including a stiff arm to Philadelphia receiver Jordan Matthews on the last 17 yards of his return -- that got his teammates jacked up this Sunday.

“It makes you feel good to see a big man like that that can pick the ball off and take it back like he’s a cornerback,” defensive tackle Letroy Guion said. “I don’t know what year he’s in, but he’s pretty much up there in years, and to see a guy like that take a ball to the house and get up there (on a Lambeau Leap) is just a great feeling for the whole team.”

Rattling Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler the week prior and keeping running back Matt Forte in check was one thing, but what Peppers and the rest of Dom Capers’ unit did to the high-octane, fully loaded, concept car of an Eagles offense was impressive. Never mind that Mark Sanchez was at the wheel of Chip Kelley’s team, which entered Sunday’s contest on top of the NFC East.

Sanchez, the former Jets signal-caller who seemed to be reborn after taking over for the injured Nick Foles the week before in a win over Carolina, was harassed for three first-half sacks, two interceptions and a fumble that was returned 49 yards by Casey Hayward for a fourth-quarter touchdown that gave the Packers a franchise first – two games in a row with 50-plus points. That Sanchez finished with 346 passing yards was of little consequence.

“We want to make a statement every week,” said Guion, who beat right guard Matt Tobin inside to sack Sanchez on the Eagles’ fifth play of the game. “We knew they were a high-powered offense coming out and we needed to get on ‘em and get on ‘em fast and slow ‘em down and I feel like we did that today as a whole defense.”

Clay Matthews was once again lined up next to A.J. Hawk at inside linebacker. The wrinkle that was unveiled last week vs. Chicago may be here to stay until further notice. It’s hard to argue the results. Running back LeSean McCoy was held to just 88 yards – including 34 in the first half as Green Bay jumped out to a 30-6 lead. The ageless and ever-dangerous Darren Sproles had just 21 rushing yards on the day and the backfield duo combined for just 44 yards through the air. Matthews led the front seven with five total stops, a batted down pass and a sack that gave him 54.5 for his career, moving him ahead of Aaron Kampman into fourth on Green Bay’s all-time list.

“Obviously, when you’re dealing with Philadelphia, it’s a drastic change from Chicago last week – the no huddle, hurry-up, unbalanced, zone reads,” Matthews said. “It definitely was kind of trial by fire this week (playing inside). I’m not sure what the final statistics were but we did a good job of shutting down that run and forcing them to be one-dimensional. They got us with a few screens early but that was trying to slow us down up front. Other than that, we put up points. After that, it’s hard for a team to come back from that.”

Aaron Rodgers keyed the offensive fireworks for the Packers, throwing for three touchdowns and 341 yards, while safety Micah Hyde showed some explosion with a 75-yard punt return that helped stake the Packers to a 24-point lead at the break.

“Each week is a different monster,” Hyde said. “You have to go against a different team and they’re going to have different weapons, different styles of play. Going into the next week we’ve got a new obstacle to face and we’re going to try our best to come out with a win.”

Right now, the Packers are a monster giving other teams nightmares. And their defense suddenly looks scary good.

W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.


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