GREEN BAY – Another divisional opponent, another slow start for the Green Bay Packers defense.
Through the first 22 minutes Sunday night, there was shoddy tackling, defensive linemen not filling the proper gaps and receivers running open underneath the coverage.
But as the defense did a week ago in a victory over the Minnesota Vikings, the unit didn’t give in like it had so many times a year ago. Instead, for a second straight week, they battled back and played a big role in a 27-20 victory over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.
“They just kind of took it to us,” cornerback Tramon Williams confessed. “Instead of getting 2- or 3-yard carries, they were bleeding us. … We kind of settled down after that and just played ball.”
The turnaround was sparked by the most unlikely of plays and player.
Leading 14-3 in the middle of the second quarter, the Lions were driving in Packers’ territory when the first wintry weather conditions of the season caused quarterback Matthew Stafford to lose the ball as he was winding up to throw. Rookie defensive lineman Mike Daniels scooped it up and took off for a 43 yard touchdown.
“That’s what everybody was telling me – we needed that,” Daniels said. “That was a big play. I was just thinking about trying to catch my breath because I knew we had to get back on the field. It’s just good to be able to bring that extra juice to help turn things around at a pivotal point in the game.”
Added defensive lineman Ryan Pickett: “It was a huge lift. It was the biggest play of the game. They were driving the ball. We hadn’t stopped them yet. That was the turning point of the game. It was a big play.”
Up to that point, Detroit had 180 yards of offense. In the last two and half quarters they would add just 206.
The running game had sliced Green Bay’s defense for 98 yards to that point, averaging 5.8-yards per carry. After Daniels play, the Lions gained only 37 more yards on the ground with their yards per carry average plummeting to 2.5.
“We changed up a couple things but most of all (the coaches) just challenged us,” Pickett said. “When you’ve got an opportunity we’ve got to make the play. We can’t miss tackles and things like that. They did a good job of challenging us on that. We just came out in the second half and played a different ball game. We played how we should have played all game.”
Perhaps, but factoring into the Packers’ early-game struggles against the run was a lack of available defensive linemen. Injuries to Mike Neal (shoulder) and C.J. Wilson (knee) left defensive line coach Mike Trgovac only four linemen to rotate, and in turn, the Packers never had more than two defensive linemen on the field at the same time. That left them in their nickel and dime packages all game long, even in short-yardage situations when the Lions trotted first-round draft pick Riley Reiff, their left tackle of the future, onto the field as an additional blocker.
“If you get a call where you can play the run well in nickel and it’s working, you can play the pass well, then we’ll call that,” Williams said. “But if they’re bleeding us for a lot of yards like the started off early in the game … We actually found one that worked a little bit better toward the end of the first half. We came out in the second half and we called it and called it and called it, and it worked.”
What was so different?
“Just gap control,” Williams explained. “It put guys in better position, the linebackers and D-linemen, to play the run. In another defense, they might not body position-wise be able to play the run as well, like they want to. You have to give those guys a little help. You can’t give us all the help back there all the time.”
While the defense continued to play without star outside linebacker Clay Matthews and veteran leader Charles Woodson, the unit did get Sam Shields back at corner after he’d missed the past six weeks with an ankle injury suffered Oct. 14. Although he didn’t start against the Lions, Shields made several big plays after replacing Davon House as the third cornerback in sub packages. His interception of Stafford came one series after Daniels’ touchdown, and Shields also recorded a pair of pass break-ups.
“Sam showed what he can do today and showed what he can bring to this team,” Williams said.
Williams and the secondary also held the Lions’ All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson somewhat in check. After Johnson caught five passes for 143 yards and touchdown in their first meeting Nov. 18 at Ford Field, Johnson, who has a chance to break Jerry Rice’s single-season NFL record for receiving yardage, was “limited” to 10 receptions for 118 yards.
“They do a great job with Calvin, moving him around to different spots, so it’s going to be hard to stop him from catching the ball,” Williams said. He’s going to get his catches, no doubt about it, but we didn’t let him kill us. We kept him in front of us and didn’t let him get big plays.”
And now, with just three games left in the regular season, help is on the way with Matthews and Woodson.
“It’s going to make our team better for it,” Williams said of the adversity they’ve overcome. “Obviously our young guys are getting a lot of experience now, and with Clay and Woodson coming back, it’ll definitely make us deeper and better.
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.