GREEN BAY, Wis. — In the six games since Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, the Green Bay Packers needed their defense to win them a game. In Sunday’s 22-21 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, that finally happened.
Atlanta scored one of its touchdowns off of an unlikely interception play, so the Packers’ defense actually only allowed 14 points. And, in the second half, when Green Bay was desperate to keep the Falcons from adding to their point total, the Packers pitched a shutout.
“We knew as a defense if we didn’t get some stops, we weren’t going to win that game,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said.
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The third quarter began with Green Bay’s defense forcing back-to-back three-and-out drives. In that time, the Packers added two field goals to get within five points of Atlanta’s lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Falcons still without a first down in the second half, Mike Neal rushed off the edge to sack Matt Ryan and force a fumble that was recovered by Johnny Jolly.
“I remember looking at KG (outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene) and KG’s like, ‘(Mike), you’ve got to make one (big play),'” Neal said. “It was just a golden opportunity. It was a good play at the right time of the game. It did wonders for us.”
It did wonders, indeed. Taking over with the ball at the 21-yard line, Green Bay scored a touchdown four plays later and grabbed the lead.
Atlanta had three drives after that to try to retake the lead, but the Packers shut the door each time. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant missed a 52-yard field-goal attempt in challenging weather conditions to conclude a series in which being even five yards closer might have been the difference in the kick. On its next drive, Atlanta couldn’t complete a fourth-down pass from Ryan to Tony Gonzalez when seldom-used cornerback Jarrett Bush broke up the play. Then, to cap off Green Bay’s impressive defensive second half, Bush intercepted Ryan to end the game.
“It just goes to show the type of talent and what we can do each and every week,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We obviously haven’t been living up to that billing. We try to put you the media, the fans, we try and find a reason as to what’s wrong with the defense. But in this regard, it’s everything. It’s everything from tackling to technique to playing within the scheme. Today you could see everybody bought into it.”
With the Packers’ defense struggling over the past month, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has been under a lot of fire. So have his players, and with good reason. But the improvements defensively in this game, especially in the second half, saved Green Bay’s season.
“We had some people doubting us and saying we couldn’t do this, but I’m proud of the guys and proud of our coaching staff,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “Everybody stepped up in a harsh-weather game and came through.”
Hawk’s anger subsides: Midway through the fourth quarter, Hawk watched as Falcons offensive lineman Joe Hawley dove at the back of his knee near the conclusion of a play. The normally subdued Hawk was furious. He screamed at Hawley, as well as at other Atlanta offensive linemen and what seemed to be a few words for the official who didn’t throw a flag.
“I lost it for a sec,” Hawk said. “I’ve got to find a way to maybe not take it as far, because I got a little tired for the next play.”
Hawk added that he “blacked out” as his rage boiled over, but he later got his composure.
“I honestly don’t think (Hawley’s hit) was intentional; it just felt like it at the time,” Hawk said.
Hawk said that Hawley “basically” apologized after the game, but he also thought that it was “a little bit of a misunderstanding.”
Hawk had no idea what words were exchanged between himself and Hawley after the play.
“I don’t think he was mic’d up, so we’ll never know,” Hawk said. “I wasn’t mic’d up, either. I was still calculated enough to know I wasn’t going to do anything stupid and jeopardize the team. I wasn’t going to punch him, I wasn’t going to head-butt him. I still had enough sense. I’m not saying I’m smart, but I had enough sense to at least not do that. He was cool about it. He wasn’t playing like that all game, so I believe him. He was a good guy.”
Lacy’s unnecessary ankle injury: With only a few seconds left before halftime and the Packers 68 yards away from their end zone, coach Mike McCarthy called a rushing play for workhouse running back Eddie Lacy. At the conclusion of the one-yard gain, Lacy injured his ankle and limped into the locker room.
For a rookie who’s already carried the ball 227 times this season, it seemed like a play that — even without the benefit of hindsight — forced Lacy to absorb a couple unneeded blows to his body. The resulting injury made the decision look worse, but McCarthy stood by it.
“No,” McCarthy said when asked if he regretted not just taking a knee to end the half. “There’s other play calls I regret, but I won’t share that with you. That’s for the team.”
Lacy was listed as questionable to return, but, after missing a couple series, he came back. However, Lacy had to re-wrap his ankle with extra tape as a precaution and his play suffered a bit.
“I definitely couldn’t push off of it as much as I wanted to,” Lacy said. “I could feel it whenever I ran and, if I was healthy, I could have broken a couple of tackles. But I couldn’t because I couldn’t push off.”