1.) Dominating defense begins with Woodson
Dom Capers lined Charles Woodson up all over the field on Sunday, rarely in the same place. But to Cowboys quarterback and Burlington, Wis., native Tony Romo, it must've felt like Woodson was everywhere on every play. In one of the Packers' most dominating defensive performances in recent memory, Woodson led the way with nine tackles, two forced fumbles — one was a strip of Roy Williams after a 42-yard catch, the other came on a blitzing strip-sack of Romo — and a touchdown-saving interception.
Both fumbles were recovered by rookie linebacker Clay Matthews III. The latter set up the Packers at the 3-yard line, en route to a touchdown and 17-0 lead. But Woodson's best play might have been later in the final quarter. With the Cowboys lined up for first-and-goal at the Green Bay 1, Woodson diagnosed the route of tight end Jason Witten and dove in front of him for his 41st career interception and 24th in 55 regular-season games with the Packers. Not since Reggie White roamed Lambeau Field has one player shown the ability to take over a game and dictate to an opposing offense the way Woodson has.
2.) First-round backers have a knack for the attack
Along with his two fumble recoveries, Matthews continues to run around like a man possessed. He notched his team-leading fourth sack of the season and provided constant pressure from the outside, using his speed and athleticism to go around 6-foot-7, 338-pound man-mountain Flozell Adams. Whatever lofty expectations the Packers had when they traded back into the bottom of the first round in April to select him, it's safe to say Matthews is exceeding them. He brings an energy and intensity to this defense that is contagious.
Barnett and Hawk wreaked havoc up the middle with a variety of cross-dog blitzes that netted Barnett two sacks and two swings of the samurai sword. Not often used as a blitzer, the former Oregon State Beaver showed a burst and closing speed that put an exclamation mark on his return from knee surgery.
While Hawk didn't get a takedown of Romo, he played with an abandon and aggressiveness that helped set the defensive tone. It was a stark contrast to the solid, assignment-sure style that Hawk is known, and at times, criticized for. His lack of impact plays led to a reduced role earlier in the season, as he lost snaps in the nickel to Brandon Chillar. In the win over Dallas, however, Hawk played with an edge, and maybe a bit of a chip on his shoulder. That's a good thing for this defense and Hawk's future playing time.
3.) Problems persist with the three 'P's'
Rodgers got sacked four times on Sunday.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Against an aggressive Dallas defense, Green Bay used a mix of screen passes and draws that limited the damage to just four sacks on Aaron Rodgers. Compared to previous weeks, that's an improvement. Especially when Romo got dropped five times. Rodgers wisely threw the ball away a couple times (unwisely on an intentional grounding call) and went with quick slants and checkdowns rather than looking downfield. T.J. Lang showed improved play at right tackle and won't give up his spot easily to Mark Tauscher. Regardless, the offense demonstrated a realization (finally) that fundamental changes had to occur to slow the league-leading beating that Rodgers is taking.
Part of keeping Rodgers upright, however, included five holding penalties by the offensive line. On the day, Green Bay had 12 penalties for 100 yards, the second-highest single-game totals for the NFL's most-penalized team. The team's overall performance puts that total to the backburner, but when a team leads the league in penalties, it's a reflection on focus and discipline, two things needed for teams with playoff aspirations.
The punting situation is no more correctable than the previous two, aside from finding someone other than Jeremy Kapinos to trot out on fourth down. He averaged just 35 net yards on seven punts. Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said Kapinos needs to shorten up his stride, but this is something he's been working on since the offseason. Fortunately on this day, the coverage teams were sharp.
4.) Jones gave us a glimpse into the future
How much should we read into the fact the defense had its best performance on a day when Aaron Kampman was inactive due to a concussion suffered the previous week? A little bit, at least. There were 191 players who came off the board between Matthews and seventh-round pick Brad Jones. But Jones, who replaced Kampman at left outside linebacker, did exactly what Green Bay hoped he could do when it drafted him out of the University of Colorado.
Having played three years in a 3-4 defensive scheme, the former Michigan high school defensive player of the year looked fluid in coverage, and aside from giving up a couple completions, did a commendable job in his first action from scrimmage this season. He finished with seven tackles, including one for a loss. There's no reason to think the Packers couldn't succeed starting Jones the rest of the season. While he's got nothing on Kampman as a pure pass rusher, Green Bay's new scheme clearly doesn't play to their Pro Bowler's strengths, and Jones is much more comfortable dropping back and playing in space. That said, Kampman will absolutely be back in the starting lineup against San Francisco and hopefully being put in a position to make plays the same way his teammates were against Dallas. But look for the team to work Jones into the rotation as the season goes on. Kampman is in the final year of his contract and it's hard to imagine him not returning to his familiar defensive end spot on a team employing a 4-3 alignment. Grooming Jones for the inevitable just makes sense.
"I think he's warranted an opportunity to play," McCarthy said of Jones. "I was very pleased with his performance, his ability to get off blocks, some of the plays he made. He's done a nice job. He's really been coming on in special teams, has been productive there, and had a productive evening (against Dallas). He's definitely warranted that opportunity."
5.) Maybe this team got buried prematurely
I admit it, I was wrong. I thought Sunday's game would be the one in which the dam officially broke. I thought the Packers would lose by 17 to Dallas, maybe more. Coming off a loss to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there was little reason to think otherwise. The defense was out of sync, Rodgers was getting pounded like a heavy bag and there was nothing special about the special teams. Taking a break from the press box on a crisp November afternoon, I sat with my dad in Section 106, soaking up all the ambiance of the greatest atmosphere in professional sports. I watched a pair of jets hit their thrusters as they flew over Lambeau Field at the end of the national anthem and announced that we'd just seen the highlight of the next three hours. Shows what I know.
Green Bay played its most-inspired football of the season in dismantling Dallas 17-7. Only a garbage-time touchdown with 38 seconds remaining killed the shutout. Make no mistake about it, this was a very talented, very physical Cowboys team that had some momentum coming into Lambeau Field. But Green Bay melded scheme and personnel with results that were as shocking as they were impressive. This was the kind of defensive gem that doesn't come along often, and everyone who watched should feel fortunate to have witnessed it. Green Bay harassed Romo for the better part of three hours.
On the flip side, Green Bay's offense cashed in on Romo's fumble, scoring from the 3-yard line to put the game away. But it was a 15-play, 80-yard drive to go up 10-0 in the minutes preceeding that play that really showed what Rodgers and the offense was made of. Everyone knows Rodgers can put up big stats. But that drive — capped by a 1-yard quarterback sneak — was the kind of statement Rodgers needed to make.
The big question now is, where do they go from here? What worked against the Cowboys may not be what's drawn up for San Francisco, Detroit or any other team on the schedule, but Green Bay showed what it can do when there is a synergy among the players and coaches. In a lot of ways, the Packers are like the C student who just aced their biggest test — the ability is there, they just need to apply themselves. And now that we know they can do it, we expect them to do it every time. Right now, the season depends on their ability to build on and repeat that performance.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.