Defense rises to challenge

Best second half of season propels Packers past Redskins

It was the type of half that can really go a long way in defining a season and a team. Not that it was perfect or set any headline-making records, but under the same circumstances a year ago, its result might have been different.

The Packers' defense won Sunday's game at Lambeau Field against the Redskins with its play in the second half. Not only did the coaches make the necessary adjustments and the players take advantage of opportunities, but a belief that has been building since the start of training camp shined through perhaps more than at any time this season.

Though the Packers' defense has yet to play well for an entire game this season, there is no denying the unit's confidence.

So while Packers' fans might have been troubled by a first half that saw the Redskins roll up 208 total yards and a 14-7 lead, not to mention a couple of blunders the week prior in a loss to the Bears, the Packers' defense got to work when the Packers' offense would not. As a result, the Packers earned a satisfying 17-14 victory on an otherwise dreary Green Bay day.

"We relish the opportunity when the game sits on our shoulders," said cornerback Al Harris. "We went out as a defense and didn't panic and you could see the confidence in guys' eyes. You could just look around and see it. I went back to the sideline and said, ‘We're going to win this one.' You can feel it when you're in a groove, and we were confident we were going to win that game."

Though anyone could say the Packers' much-ballyhooed defense has played below expectations thus far this season, there is little doubt that they believe they can carry the team if needed. Sunday was one of those days they needed to.

"I just think the way the game was going, we felt like that," said cornerback Charles Woodson. "It wasn't about the weather, or the fog, or how cool it was, it was just about the fact that the offense wasn't moving the ball, so we had to find ways to get off the field or get the ball back for the offense."

A year ago, with much of the same personnel on defense, the Packers might have lost a game like this one. The adjustments entering the second half, or the start of the game for that matter, would not have been there to withstand a wave of momentum like the Redskins were building in the first half. Like second-year coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Bob Sanders, though, the Packers are taking valuable lessons learned and turning them into wins on game day this year.

The Packers went out of their base defense for much of the second half, or matched up with a defensive back on Chris Cooley after the Redskins' tight end caught seven passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Cooley caught just two passes in the second half and was a non-factor.

When the Redskins ran their trademark sweep running plays or screen passes in the second half, they found a re-energized Packers' defense. One of the NFL's better running backs, Clinton Portis, gained just 64 yards on 20 carries and after sustaining drives in the first half, the Redskins' offense had just one drive over five plays in the second.

The biggest moment of the game, though, came when Woodson picked up a fumble and outraced Redskins' quarterback Jason Campbell to the end zone for a 57-yard touchdown. Woodson's season until Sunday had been defined by penalties more than big plays, but when Corey Williams' hit on Portis jarred the ball loose, Woodson got his big play. His score put the Packers ahead and would prove to be the game-winner.

Not since Harris took back an interception for a touchdown in a 2004 playoff game against the Seahawks have the Packers won a game with a defensive touchdown. With a first-half interception added, Woodson turned what could have been a bad day into a good one. Twice in the game he was penalized for illegal contact, but he continued to play aggressively on Redskins' wide receivers.

The Packers' defense also had their share of luck, too. Unofficially, the Redskins dropped eight passes. At least two or three of them were deep throws that would have resulted in either big plays or touchdowns.

All things considered, though, the Packers' defense has to feel good headed into the bye week. The team is 5-1, the unit played perhaps its best half of the season, yet everyone still knows, and perhaps more importantly feels, things can get better.

"I clearly think our defense is capable of playing this way. I think they proved that down the stretch last year," said McCarthy. "They (were) clearly the key to the victory today and you could just see the strength of their performance increasing as the game went on.

"I'll take that game right there as a very good illustration of the character of our football team. There was a number of momentum swings in that game and they just kept battling back."

Matt Tevsh is a frequent contributor to and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at

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