Before Hail Mary, All Hail the Packers’ Defense

Without the defense bouncing back from a slow start, Aaron Rodgers wouldn't have had a chance to be the hero.

The Green Bay Packers’ victory over the Detroit Lions on Thursday night forever will be remembered for Aaron Rodgers’ remarkable Hail Mary touchdown to Richard Rodgers.

The Packers’ stunning comeback from a 20-point deficit wouldn’t have been possible without the defense slamming the door after a nightmarish first quarter. Detroit drove 35 yards to an opening field goal and 76 yards for a touchdown to take a 10-0 lead. Moments later, Aaron Rodgers was intercepted and Matthew Stafford connected with Calvin Johnson for an acrobatic 17-yard touchdown. Just 14 minutes into the game, the Lions led 17-0. Considering Detroit had won three in a row and Green Bay had lost four of five, the Packers’ challenge seemed almost insurmountable.

“It just shows the guys we have in this program,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji. “I mean, 17-0 in the first quarter, it’s easy to say, ‘It’s not your night,’ and pack it in. For guys to continue to fight, it shows the kind of people we have.”

At that point, the Lions had 128 yards, 17 points and seven first downs compared to 29 yards, zero points and one first down for the Packers. Little changed offensively from Green Bay’s perspective for the rest of the first half. After Green Bay drove 57 yards but missed a field goal, it managed 15 yards, no points and two first downs in its final four possessions of the half.

The Packers, however, wouldn’t crumble, thanks to an underrated defense. After the Lions went ahead 17-0, their final four possessions of the first half lasted merely 13 plays and managed 23 yards, no points and one first down.

“We got off to a slow start,” linebacker Julius Peppers said. “That’s something that we can look at and get better from. But, other than that, I thought we pretty much controlled the game.”

The Lions extended the lead to 20-0 to open the second half before the tide turned. Green Bay’s offense finally put together a scoring drive to close within 20-7. On the first play after the kickoff, Peppers roared around left tackle Riley Reiff for a sack-strip that was recovered by rookie linebacker Jake Ryan. Green Bay turned that critical turnover into a touchdown to make it 20-14.

“I think it was a momentum change,” Peppers said. “We got the ball deep in their territory, Aaron got the touchdown for us. I think that was one of the turning points of the game.”

It wasn’t pretty, but Green Bay’s defense kept the Lions at bay and the game within reach. On the ensuing possession, Peppers’ pressure helped thwart a third-and-1 near midfield. On the next possession, Peppers’ offside was the difference between the Lions punting after a failed third-and-11 and picking up a first down fourth-and-2. Stafford then avoided a sack by defensive back Micah Hyde and scrambled for 10 on third-and-9. However, Mike Pennel stuffed Joique Bell on first down and cornerback Sam Shields broke up a pass to Johnson on third-and-11 to force a field goal that gave Detroit a 23-14 with 7:06 to play. After the Packers pulled within 23-21 on Aaron Rodgers’ 17-yard touchdown run, rookie cornerback Quinten Rollins got beat for 29 on third-and-12 but safety Morgan Burnett, defensive tackle Mike Daniels and Peppers stopped three consecutive runs to give the offense a glimmer of hope.

“That’s all we kept preaching,” Shields said. “We just kept fighting.”

By keeping up the fight, the Packers won the game in unthinkable fashion. That memorable comeback and dramatic throw from Rodgers wouldn’t have happened without a second-half defensive performance that held the Lions to 42 yards on 15 carries (2.8 yards per carry) and kept Johnson to one catch for 7 yards in five targets.

“That shows you the grit of our team,” Burnett said. “As long as you’ve got one play, you keep fighting until the last play, the last whistle. That’s what our team did. Nobody on the team hung their head. We just kept fighting, kept fighting. As long as we’ve got a chance, that’s all we need.”

Bill Huber is publisher of and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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