New England quarterback Tom Brady was the meat uncomfortably pressed between outside linebacker Mike Neal and defensive tackle Mike Daniels. But for the Packers and their fans, it was easily the most delicious part of Thanksgiving weekend.
They had been getting close for three hours. All of them. Neal, Daniels, Nick Perry, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers. But the only sack of Brady on the day, a 9-yard loss on a third-and-9 from the Packers’ 20-yard line, came with 3:25 remaining and Green Bay clinging to a 26-21 lead. Late is always better than never, when it comes to sacks.
The significance crystalized on the next play as kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s 47-yard field goal sailed wide right. Green Bay took over on downs and, two Eddie Lacy runs and an Aaron Rodgers-to-Randall Cobb pass later, it was in the victory formation as Brady cursed on the sideline.
“It was definitely timely,” Neal said of the sack he and Daniels split. “We needed a stop and we were able to go out there and get one. I got a good jump on the ball, I beat my dude clean and just seen a No. 12 and you can’t miss that one. You gotta go make those plays and that was a big-time play.”
But it wasn’t the only one. In fact, on the second down immediately preceding Neal and Daniels’ Malachi crunch on Brady, rookie safety HaHa Clinton-Dix laid claim to the defensive play of the game when he glued himself to all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski and ripped away what would’ve been a 20-yard touchdown after the two dove through the air and rolled to the ground in the end zone.
“I was put in coverage with Gronk a lot tonight and I think I did a pretty decent job,” Clinton-Dix said. “It’s a very tough matchup. The guy’s physical, he knows how to get open, and he’s deadly with the ball in his hands. I had to get my hands on him early and kind of disrupt his rhythm.”
And on that second-and-9 play, Clinton-Dix had a feeling it was coming his way. Of course they were going to go after him.
“Most definitely,” he said. “I’m the rookie, I’m the youngest one of the pack. I knew they were going to try to challenge me and I was up for it. I knew I just had to finish that play.
“He’s the biggest weapon on their offense and he was definitely one guy we wanted to focus on during the week. I think we held our ground as a whole, as a defense.”
That Rodgers and the Packers’ offense would get their points in this contest was no surprise. That the Packers’ defense would limit Brady to 245 yards and two scores, hold the Patriots’ power running game in check with 84 yards and a touchdown and contain Gronkowski to seven catches and 98 yards, is something few outside the Packers’ locker room saw coming. While this unit has had a personality transplant since the bye, with Matthews taking heavy reps at inside linebacker, the Patriots presented a cocktail of everything the Packers’ defense had struggled with: Elite quarterbacks, power running games and athletic tight ends.
One surprise defensive wrinkle to combat that was putting second-year inside linebacker Sam Barrington into the starting lineup next to Matthews, in place of veteran A.J. Hawk – who was exposed a week ago against Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph and has historically struggled with top-flight tight ends. Barrington had two starts before the bye, as the third option at the inside position next to Hawk, following starts by Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore. Barrington, was then replaced by Matthews, but on Sunday returned to replace Hawk. Despite not starting, Hawk rotated in on certain defensive packages and played almost half of the defensive snaps.
“I knew going in what our plan was going to be,” Hawk said. “It’s nothing I haven’t done before coming on and off the field like that. I just wanted to make sure I was ready when packages I was in were called. Whatever they want to do, it’s not my job to question anything. But I think our defense played really well today.”
The game may have been decided in the closing minutes, but it was as active an effort from start to finish as the Packers’ defense has shown all year. There were tipped passes by Peppers, Matthews hitting Brady’s hand to force a wobbly incompletion, and Barrington sticking running back LeGarrette Blount in the hole for no gain to force a punt.
At times, it wasn’t pretty. There were back-to-back passes to Patriots tight ends totaling 52 yards to start the second quarter and a blown coverage on a 26-yard reception by running back Shane Vereen. Blount ran over safety Morgan Burnett on one play, and Gronkowski ran through four defenders on another. But without the advantage of the Packers’ offense putting the game out of reach early, the defense put together its most complete, most inspired and most determined showing of the season.
“You could see we were getting a lot of good pressure all night and we didn’t get to him until the last play of the game,” Daniels said. “And that was just guys just fighting every single play and that’s just what we need to continue to do. Continue to be resilient and continue to show that grit that Coach McCarthy talked about in the beginning of OTAs.
“We had the No. 1 offense in the NFL coming into our house, under the lights, with a very, very, very dangerous lineup of men, with a coach that’s going to make sure they get after it every single play, so to get a victory against a team that’s so well-disciplined, so well-coached, with as many weapons as they have, that’s huge,” Daniels said. “That’s huge and you gotta look at yourself and say, ‘Man, we did a heckuva job.’ But make sure it’s more definitive next time. That’s what we’re going to continue to improve on and work towards — to make sure we put our stamp on it better and make it not come down to the wire.”
All wins count the same. But all wins are not created equal. The same can be said of Sunday’s defensive gem.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.