Packers' Defense Fires Blanks With New Faces

Maybe it was just the ineptitude of the Lions, but Clay Matthews III and Atari Bigby made a difference on Sunday. Matthews made the first of what figures to be many starts in his young NFL career while Bigby returned from a knee injury for his first start since the opener.

Whether the shutout posted by Green Bay Packers' defense was an accomplishment or an indictment of the JV-caliber Detroit Lions' offense won't be determined until Nov. 1.

That's when Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson and the high-flying Minnesota Vikings come to town. Minnesota boasts the NFL's second-ranked scoring offense, and even when Favre is 60 and contemplating his 15th comeback, he's a better quarterback option than Drew Culpepper or whoever those guys were under center on Sunday.

But let's not just sweep the Packers' defensive performance under the rug just because none of the Lions' receivers on Sunday would break the Packers' top four. Aaron Kampman certainly isn't one to overstate the facts, but Sunday's performance left him wearing a big, optimistic smile.

"Honestly, yes, because obviously it's something that's nice," he said after dominating the Lions' 2008 first-round draft pick, Gosder Cherilus, for one sack and five quarterback hits. "We shut out a team, and that's hard to do. I don't care who you're playing. So, obviously, that was something that gives us some confidence moving forward."

Why should anyone believe the Packers' defense that blanked Wayne State, err, Detroit on Sunday is any better than the unit that got picked apart by Favre two weeks ago?

Here are two reasons: Clay Matthews III and Atari Bigby. Bigby missed the first meeting with Minnesota while recovering from a knee injury. Matthews was still in a timeshare with veteran Brady Poppinga. They both made their presence felt against Detroit.

In an interview with Packer Report on Friday, outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said "it was the right time" for Matthews to become a starter. So, what took Matthews five years to accomplish at USC took just five games in Green Bay.

Matthews didn't waste any time making an impact on Sunday. He had tackles for losses on the first two snaps of the game, setting up a third-down interception that helped the Packers take a quick 14-0 lead. On the first play of the Lions' next series, Matthews whipped rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew for a sack. On fourth-and-1 late in the first quarter, Matthews helped stop Kevin Smith for a 1-yard loss. On third-and-8 early in the second quarter, Matthews ran stride for stride with the impressive Pettigrew to break up a pass.

"He had a great start. He played well all game, but he had a great start," Kampman said. "I think he did a great job of helping set the tone for the defense. Then the interception, we started out really fast today and I think that really helped us and hurt the Lions."

Playing every snap, he finished with five tackles, two sacks and three tackles for losses.

"I think he just continues to get better," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "He played every down, first second and third down, today. We've sensed that he was heading in that direction. To me, what's encouraging is last game, he had the fumble recovery for a touchdown. Today, he had a couple sacks and I thought played a good overall game. I like where he's heading. I think he's just now rounding into form coming off of the time he missed through training camp, and that time's always hard to make up for guys."

While veteran Brady Poppinga is 100 mph of run-stopping fury, Matthews simply has more talent. Matthews' combination of talent and passion are why Poppinga hoped the Packers would draft Matthews after watching him make five tackles in USC's Rose Bowl victory over Penn State.

Matthews' three sacks in five games are equal to Poppinga's career total in four-plus seasons.

"I've always told people that Clay was going to come in here and make plays," linebacker Nick Barnett said. "He earned his respect obviously and he's going to keep earning it as a rookie. But he played a hell of a game. He went out there and played and he's continuing to grow as you see him get more comfortable with the scheme and what we ask of him to do, he's starting to get more and more confident."


Bigby preserved the shutout with an interception.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
While Matthews provided some juice to the front seven, Bigby solidified the back of the defense.

Bigby, after missing the last three games, made his presence felt long before his end-zone interception in the fourth quarter preserved the shutout. Those busted coverages that were exploited by Favre? They were nowhere to be found against the Lions, and that was one reason why Capers was able to open up his defensive playbook.

"We know this," Barnett said. "We know he's strong in the run. He's a hell of a hitter. We know he can run. He's got great range as far as making plays. If you feel comfortable with a player, you're going to feel comfortable with the calls that you make. I think (Derrick) Martin's a great player, too, but he just got here. I think we do feel more comfortable with (Bigby) in there."

That's because Bigby has been starting alongside Nick Collins, Al Harris, Charles Woodson and nickel corner Tramon Williams since 2007. Not only does Bigby add a much-needed physical presence and a ballhawk with six interceptions in his last 12 regular-season starts, but the team simply plays better with him on the field. In the five games in which he was healthy enough to start and play most of the snaps last year, the Packers were 3-2. In the other 11 games, they were 3-8.

"I feel like with the five guys that we have back there, we have great communication," Bigby said. "We all know each other, we know what we sound like. We know down to the pitch of our voice, who and how the way we speak. So, that plays into it as far as communication."

Added together, the Packers got their first shutout in two years and posted just the fifth shutout in the league this season.

"It's hard to do. I don't care, you go through in the NFL, it's hard to get a shutout," Capers said. "There's a lot of things that have to happen. I thought our guys made critical plays at key times to keep them out of the end zone. We had to make an interception in the end zone to preserve it and we had to play awfully well on third down to make sure that they couldn't sustain drives."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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