GREEN BAY, Wis. — Mike Daniels. DuJuan Harris. These two lesser-known Packers rookies were the difference in the team’s 27-20 victory Sunday night over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.
Touchdowns by Daniels — a defensive lineman who scored on a fumble recovery — and Harris — an undrafted first-year player who was added to the active roster Dec. 1 — sparked Green Bay’s win in a game when quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t even throw a touchdown pass.
“You wouldn’t quite expect it from those guys,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers scored on a 27-yard run, the longest of his career, but it was the first time in 35 home games in which the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player didn’t throw for a touchdown.
“I’ve put up plenty of numbers in the past and we’ve won a lot of games here,” Rodgers said. “When you go through a season like last year, you realize that the numbers and the wins in the regular season are nice, but it’s all about the championship, especially after you’ve accomplished a lot of individual goals.”
Rodgers completed 14 of his 24 passing attempts for 173 yards, leaving the game in the hands of players like Daniels and Harris.
Midway through the second quarter, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had the ball slip out of his hands on a pass attempt, with Daniels scooping it up and running it 43 yards. The Packers were trailing 14-3 prior to that play, and Daniels’ touchdown proved to be a momentum-changer in the game.
“That’s what everybody was telling me, that 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.”
Daniels became the first Packers rookie defensive lineman to return a fumble for a touchdown since Ernie Pannell in 1941.
“It will definitely be one of the top plays of the season,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think anytime you say that’s the first time something happens since 1941 for the Green Bay Packers, that’s a pretty big accomplishment. It was a big play, a big play. Not only just the ability to scoop it, but to scoop, break a tackle and score.”
Daniels was a running back in high school and the 291-pounder looked like it as he raced down the field.
“‘Scrappy’ . . . that’s his nickname,” Rodgers said of Daniels. “I’m not sure if it’s self-appointed. He looked pretty athletic on that play.”
The Packers ran 13 of their 25 carries through Alex Green, but surprisingly to Harris, the 24-year-old started at running back and got the first rushing attempt. Harris made it count, too, plowing ahead for 11 yards on Green Bay’s first offensive snap.
“He just has unique agility,” Rodgers said of Harris. “He’s able to make those jump cuts, which I can only dream about. It’s pretty impressive to watch him in practice. I think he’s obviously got to learn the playbook more to get in some plays where he’s not running so teams don’t know when he comes in that we’re going to run it.
“I think he has an opportunity to get some more playing time as the season goes on.”
Without wide receiver Jordy Nelson, outside linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive back Charles Woodson, the Packers have had to get by recently with many of their key players out. Safety Morgan Burnett had two interceptions a week earlier in a win over Minnesota, and undrafted rookie Dezman Moses has filled in admirably for Matthews.
But even with all of Green Bay’s injuries, the Packers have won seven of their last eight games and now sit solely atop the NFC North with a 9-4 record. Much of that success has been due to players who began the year on the bench — or not on the roster at all — stepping in and performing well.
“The impressive part of our football team is it’s just not a couple of guys making a play,” McCarthy said. “We had a lot of different guys make plays. That speaks volumes about the depth and the young guys and everybody contributing.”