As a temperature in Green Bay in late December, that number is conceivable. As the final rushing yardage for one of the NFL’s greatest running backs however, that number is inconceivable.
Twenty years ago this New Year’s Eve, the Green Bay Packers’ defense pulled off arguably its most historic accomplishment. In an NFC Wild Card playoff game at Lambeau Field against the Detroit Lions, it held Barry Sanders on 13 carries to minus-1 yard. Total.
For a game that was played without too much drama – the Packers won 16-12 – it might never be remembered among the all-time greats. But for a defense led by a longtime respected coordinator, a past Defensive Player of the Year lined up a different position, a future Defensive Player of the Year calling the shots, and a cast of blue-collar players along the front seven, this was the culmination of teamwork and months of intensive study.
“We kind of started to get Detroit figured out because, you know, their whole scheme was ‘OK, we’re not going to block this person. Barry that’s your guy to make miss,’” recalled Bryce Paup, one of the Packers’ starting outside linebackers that day and the current defensive line coach at Northern Iowa. “And so, through the whole thing, we started to study Barry and we found out that Barry would shake and do all his stuff and people would break their ankles and fall down but we noticed that when he did that, he always at the end would go outside. So, we just decided most of the time he’ll be dancing, we’ll probably stand there and chop our feet and then right at the end we head outside and he runs right to you.”
At the time, Sanders was in the prime of a 10-year NFL career that he cut short for retirement on his own terms just four years later. At 26 years old, he had finished the regular season with a career-high 1,883 rushing yards (5.7 yards per carry) to earn him the Offensive Player of the Year honors. The next closest player to Sanders in rushing that season was Seattle’s Chris Warren, a mere 338 yards behind.
The Packers set the tone from the start. After Brett Favre led the offense down the field on a 14-play, 76-yard drive finished off by Dorsey Levens’ 3-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1, the Packers’ defense rode the momentum. On first down, Sanders was stopped by George Koonce and Doug Evans for a 2-yard loss. On second down, Sanders got off for a 7-yard run that would be his longest of the day. And then on a third-and-5, the Lions again ran Sanders, almost to prove a point, only to see Don Davey shoot through to tag him for a 6-yard loss.
“We figured out after playing him for so many years and their offensive coordinator (Dave Levy) that their whole system was fairly easy. They come up with a play and it would have a running or passing play to it and the quarterback would either say ‘flip it’ or ‘kill it’ and so we would know,” said Paup. “If you watch the film, you will see when the quarterback starts to check, I walk from the outside linebacker position to over the center to hear what the quarterback is saying to the rest of the guys. And then, a lot of times in that game, you’ll see me pointing to where it’s going or what kind of a play it is. So, we had it figured out. Once you figure out Barry is going to go outside and you know their audibles and you know where it’s going, it makes it a whole lot easier to stop him.”
Including the pre-snap adjustments, Paup was one of the heroes on the day, posting a team-high seven tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Three of his tackles against Sanders went for a loss.
Defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur also went the unconventional route by using future Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White inside along the defensive line to shore up efforts in the middle.
Sanders was a caged squirrel all day. Seven of his 13 runs went for no gain or negative yardage. And when the Lions tried to find him space in the passing game, they were met with equal force. The first pass attempt in the game to Sanders was tipped by defensive end Sean Jones. Consecutive third-quarter passes went for just 3 and 2 yards, respectively, to limit a Lions drive to a field goal. Later, there was a completion for minus-1. Sanders would finish with three catches in five targets for 4 yards.
Just 27 days earlier at the Silverdome, Sanders had rushed for 188 yards on 20 carries in a 34-31 Lions’ victory over the Packers. It would turn out to be his career high against the Packers. And a year earlier in the Wild Card round at Detroit, he went for 169 rushing yards in the famous playoff game in which Favre threw across the field to find Sterling Sharpe for a game-winning, 40-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Sanders’ recent history against the Packers made the performance on New Year’s Eve all the more “inconceivable,” as White said afterward in the victorious locker room. Also consider that in 21 career games (including the playoffs) against the Packers from 1989 through 1998, Sanders averaged 106 rushing yards.
“The caveat in the whole thing is Barry Sanders,” described Paup of having a great game plan against Sanders yet sometimes still not being able to stop him. “When he was on (artificial) turf, it was hard to stop him. You might know what he’s going to do but you’ve still got to stop him. That’s why you play the game to find out what happens. It was just kind of a perfect storm. The field conditions, I don’t really remember them, I think they were OK. But he wasn’t quite as effective on regular grass as he was on turf. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t effective on grass. That just means that his cutting ability was diminished a little bit. For the average person, it was probably good.”
Though Sanders said afterward that the turf “wasn’t ideal,” he gave no excuses for his performance. Instead, he lauded the Packers’ pursuit and noted that “when we tried to get outside, they were always there.” The weather was hardly an issue, as well, with the kickoff temperature recorded at 33 degrees and light winds for the first Lambeau Field playoff game in almost 12 years.
With an end around to receiver Brett Perriman in the game going for minus-4 yards and Dave Krieg recording a 1-yard quarterback sneak, the Lions finished with a playoff-record low minus-4 yards on 15 attempts. But the headline in the Green Bay Press-Gazette the following day was all about the defensive effort against one man; it read “PACKERS BURY SANDERS.”
For Paup, who also made a key sack at the end of the game with the Lions driving for a potential go-ahead score, the game would mark an end and a beginning. It would be his last game in Green Bay with the Packers. A week later, the Packers lost in the divisional round at Dallas. Paup would sign a lucrative free agent contract with the Buffalo Bills in the off-season and in 1995 became the league’s Defensive Player of the Year on the strength of 17.5 sacks.
“If I would’ve had a crystal ball to see in the future, I might have savored it a little more. But I didn’t,” said Paup of the historic performance against Sanders. “I knew at the time it was a great accomplishment and I think we took some pictures with the defensive line together as a way to remember, ‘Hey, we stopped Barry Sanders,’ because it was kind of a big deal.”
GOING UP AGAINST THE BEST OF THE BEST
Top single-game performances by the Packers’ defense vs. top 10 all-time rushers (minimum 10 carries)
— Emmitt Smith: 50 yards on 20 carries, Sept. 21, 2003, at Arizona
— Walter Payton: 40 yards on 12 carries, Nov. 30, 1975, at Green Bay
— Barry Sanders: -1 yard on 13 carries, Dec. 31, 1994, at Green Bay
— Curtis Martin: 42 yards on 11 carries, Jan. 26, 1997 (Super Bowl XXXI)
— LaDainian Tomlinson: 51 yards on 20 carries, Dec. 14, 2003, at San Diego
— Jerome Bettis: 65 yards on 22 carries, Oct. 9, 1994, at Green Bay
— Eric Dickerson: 69 yards on 19 carries, Nov. 13, 1988, at Green Bay
— Tony Dorsett: 44 yards on 20 carries, Sept. 23, 1984, at Dallas
— Jim Brown: 50 yards on 12 carries, Jan. 2, 1966, at Green Bay
— Marshall Faulk: 82 yards on 16 carries, Jan. 20, 2002, at St. Louis
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com