Defense Turning the Corner

The Packers' defense made a statement by stopping Tom Brady's potential game-winning drive late in Sunday's game. During its four-game winning streak, Green Bay is yielding only 17.3 points per game. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Clinging to a five-point lead and facing one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers defense knew what most folks were expecting.

"You get Tom Brady with a couple minutes left in the game, not many people are going to put their money on us," veteran cornerback Tramon Williams said.

But the Packers' steadily improving defense delivered in Sunday's 26-21 victory over Brady and the New England Patriots.

They got a third-down sack from Mike Neal and Mike Daniels with less than 3 minutes to play after the Patriots had driven to the Green Bay 20. The defense goes into the final quarter of the season complementing the team's potent offense.

"We've been playing very well this past four weeks," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "We finally seem to be carrying our own weight in light of how well the offense has been playing."

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is stating a strong case for the MVP award while leading a team that has scored more touchdowns (46) than any team in the NFL.

The defense ranks 15th in the NFL in points allowed (22.3 per game) and 25th in yards allowed (366.8 per game).

In the four games since giving up 495 yards and 44 points in a pre-bye week loss at New Orleans on Oct. 26, the Packers' defense has allowed an average of 17.3 points and 342 yards per game — all victories.

On Sunday, the Packers held the NFL's highest-scoring team to just 21 points — New England was averaging 39.6 points during the seven-game winning streak that ended at Lambeau Field — and 320 total yards.

"I'm hoping we can get as much better between now and the end of the season as you've seen us since the bye week (to) this point of time," sixth-year defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Monday.

"Your goal is always to be playing your best in the month of November and December, for obvious reasons.

"I think over the last five, six years, I think you've seen us play much better the second half of the season than we did the first half of the season — for a number of reasons. I think that guys start to get a little bit better feel of what you're doing, and you start to get a little bit better feel of what the capabilities are of your guys. That's why you see us try to use a lot of different personnel groups trying to take advantage of various players personnel sets."

Among those different personnel groupings Sunday was a mix that left veteran inside linebacker A.J. Hawk on the sideline any time the Packers weren't in their base defense.

Hawk ended up playing only 26 of the Packers' 56 defensive snaps, his lowest percentage since a Sept. 30, 2012, game against the Saints.

Hawk played alongside Matthews at inside linebacker in the base defense, then was replaced by Sam Barrington in the nickel group.

When the Packers went to their dime alignment, Matthews was the lone inside linebacker, a role that Hawk had handled most of the season.

Asked if Hawk, who came into the game having played the most snaps of any defensive player, would continue to have his playing time limited, Capers said that the decision Sunday was based in part on the Packers' plan to match up with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. But Capers also didn't say that Hawk would go back to his previous role.

"I would say it would vary from week to week," Capers said. "Again, based off what our opponent is doing, you'll see different personnel groups and different people involved in those. It could change from one week to the next based on your injury situation, who's available. The purpose is to try to get your best 11 people against who they put out there and the matchups."

Several weeks ago, coach Mike McCarthy cautioned that the defense needed to find a way to be successful without relying solely on takeaways.

The Packers lead the NFL in turnover differential at plus-15 — having forced 23 turnovers while only committing a league-low eight — and against the Patriots, the unit got the job done without an interception or fumble recovery.

The Patriots scored three touchdowns, but their other five full-fledged drives ended in four punts and a 47-yard missed field goal following the Neal-Daniels sack.

"I don't think anything breeds confidence like success," Capers said. "I think we've been able to make strides during the month of November. I like the progress that we've made. Now the challenge for us is, we know we want to be playing our best football in December. We've got to continue to press on and find a way to improve."

Find Genaro C. Armas on Twitter at twitter.com/GArmasAP.


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