The Green Bay Packers often talk about “adversity defense.” On Sunday at Lambeau Field, they provided the blueprint on how to play it.
With quarterback Aaron Rodgers having an uncharacteristic day and a special teams snafu threatening a second-half lead, the Packers’ defense answered the call when it needed to the most – not once, not twice, not three times, but in effect seven times faced with difficult situations during a 24-10 victory over the St. Louis Rams.
“I think the biggest thing that our defense knows is that whenever our offense turns the ball over and we’re put in an adverse situation, we try our best to get the ball back to Aaron. We count on him,” said linebacker Mike Neal. “The biggest thing is that we know when we’re at home Aaron usually plays lights out, so we try to get the ball back to him, being able to keep points off the board, and let him run the score up.”
Sunday’s struggles on offense for the Packers were, in a way, extremely rare for the Rodgers era. Throwing twice to the wrong team, Rodgers ended his long interception-less streak at Lambeau, which dated back to the 2012 season. With a lost fumble added after a sack, he turned the ball over three times for the first time in a game since 2009. The Packers also turned the ball over on downs once and, to make matters even more difficult, the Rams converted a fake punt for a first down.
Remarkably, the Rams were only able to convert such golden opportunities into a single field goal - 42 yards from Greg Zuerlein - seven plays after Trumaine Johnson ran an interception back 29 yards to the Packers’ 33 in the second quarter. Zuerlein later missed a 50-yard field goal off a deflection by Datone Jones and missed a 53-yarder wide left.
But Rams quarterback Nick Foles, who had just two interceptions over the entire season in 2013 (13 games), was picked off a career-high four times by the Packers’ defense. All four interceptions came in third-and-long situations. Two came in the red zone.
Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had one of those picks, in the end zone, on a pass intended for tight end Lance Kendricks with the Packers holding on to a 21-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Joe Thomas had the first chance to snare Foles’ errant pass, but when it went through his hands and then off Kendricks’, Clinton-Dix was there to make the play.
“We’re getting better, we’re getting better,” began Packers coach Mike McCarthy, “but let’s be honest, we’re playing a lot of people. We’re banged up, we’ve got a big seven days here ahead of us. We need to get some players healthy and we get the San Diego Chargers coming in here, so this is a big seven-day week.”
The Packers were again without safety Morgan Burnett in the secondary (calf) as well as backups Sean Richardson and LaDarius Gunter. The Packers went often to their dime personnel on defense to combat the Rams, and rookie Quentin Rollins, who had played just 20 defensive snaps coming in, got his most extensive action of the season at cornerback. His 45-yard interception return for a touchdown (both career firsts) in the first quarter might have been the play of the day for the defense. But what he did later may have been just as impressive.
With 1:03 left in the game and the Packers leading 24-10, Rollins inexplicably was beaten by Stedman Bailey for a 68-yard completion (Clinton-Dix made a touchdown saving tackle at the 7-yard line). But after a Foles spike to stop the clock and an incomplete pass, Rollins settled into a zone coverage and picked off Foles again, this time at the 4-yard line with just 23 seconds left.
“You’ve just got to let it go. That’s going to happen,” said Rollins of giving up the Rams’ longest gain of the day. “That’s a part of the football game. You’re going to give up plays. Obviously, you don’t want to, but it’s just a part of the game. So I had to come back from that. I’m glad I did, and I’m just looking forward to getting into the film room.”
For the game, the Rams ran 34 offensive plays in Packers’ territory compared to only 19 plays in Rams’ territory for the Packers. Foles was pressured and forced into many of his 19 incomplete passes.
Said Rollins of the Packers pass rush and coverage: “It’s all about playing off each other and that’s what we did today.”
Safety Micah Hyde added a first-quarter interception of Foles, who also fumbled once, was sacked three times and hit another 12 times. Clay Matthews led the way on blitzes up the middle and rushes from the outside. He had 1.5 sacks and four quarterback hits.
“We can complain all we want on the sideline about, ‘Yeah, let’s get points,’ but would the defense want it any other way?” shot Matthews after the game. “For so long now, this has been (an offensive team). It still is an offensive team, but it’s nice when the defense can hold their own, especially in the last couple weeks of doing so, especially when the opposition is having a good defensive game and maybe our offense isn’t clicking. These are the types of games that we need sometimes and kind of show our identity.”
RESPONDING TO ADVERSITY
How the Packers defense handled tough situations on Sunday against the Rams
Situation: Aaron Rodgers intercepted by linebacker James Laurinaitis on a pass tipped by Mark Barron. Rams take over at their own 43.
Result: Three plays later, Micah Hyde intercepts Nick Foles. The Packers get the ball back at the 50.
Situation: Eddie Lacy falls just short of a first down on a fourth-and-1 run. The Rams take over at their own 41.
Result: Three plays later, Quentin Rollins returns an interception 45 yards for a touchdown.
Situation: Rodgers intercepted by cornerback Trumaine Johnson at the Rams’ 38. Johnson returns 29 yards to the Packers’ 33.
Result: Seven plays later, the Packers hold the Rams to a 42-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal.
Situation: On a fourth-and-two, the Rams fake a field goal and punter Johnny Hekker throws a 20-yard completion to Cody Davis.
Result: Four plays later, Datone Jones deflects Zuerlein’s 50-yard field goal attempt. The kick is no good.
Situation: Rodgers is sacked by defensive end Robert Quinn and fumbles. The Rams’ Lamarcus Joyner recovers at the Packers’ 41.
Result: The Rams get one first down, but a tackle for loss by Mike Neal on running back Todd Gurley and a Julius Peppers sack of Foles leads to a 53-yard field goal attempt. Zuerlein misses wide left.
Situation: Gurley, who has been held in check for most of the day, finally gets loose for a 55-yard run down to the Packers’ 25.
Result: Four plays later, with the Rams at the Packers’ 7, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix intercepts Foles in the end zone on a pass that was deflected twice.
Situation: With just 1:03 left and the Packers up 14, wide receiver Stedman Bailey catches a long pass for 68 yards down to the Packers’ 7.
Result: Three plays later, Rollins makes his second interception of the game at the Packers’ 4.