'D' leads Pack back to NFC title game
Charles Woodson looks at his Green Bay Packers’ defense with tremendous pride, marveling at the sum of its brilliant individual parts. Through a regular season marred by injury but buoyed by personal and team growth, the Packers’ playmaking defensive unit has exploded this postseason to rival white hot quarterback Aaron Rodgers for center stage in the NFL playoffs.
Sunday’s rivalry-for-the-ages NFC Championship Game against the Chicago Bears at frosty Soldier Field (FOX, 2 p.m. ET) is the latest opportunity for the second-ranked Packers’ defense to turn heads — and an opposing quarterback on his heels — yet again.
“This group, it’s playoff ready, and we’re rolling. There is so much talent at every position. Everywhere you look. And it’s just a lot of fun right now, playing where we are, how we are, with all of these guys,” said Woodson, 34, the 2009 AP NFL defensive player of the year and a seven-time Pro Bowler, whose performances seem to improve with age.
Sunday’s is the third game against the Bears this season and No. 182 in the teams’ history. But it’s their first playoff meeting since 1941, and despite being a mere four quarters away from a Super Bowl XLV berth, the Packers’ mood was businesslike and focused on Wednesday in the busy locker room at Lambeau Field.
While Rodgers and Greg Jennings took care of media obligations before the cameras in the Packers’ auditorium, Woodson sat back in a plush black leather theater chair inside the team’s main film room next door, watching like a big brother while fourth-year cornerback Tramon Williams holed up in a nearby cubicle and pored over his study notes yet again.
“If I had a hand in that, knowing how hard Tramon works at this,” Woodson said, gesturing toward Williams, “then I’m really humbled.”
Woodson should be.
“He’s one of the reasons I’m playing like I am. He’s just such a pro,” said Williams, whose three game-changing interceptions and a touchdown in Green Bay’s playoff victories on the road against the Eagles and Falcons turned him into a playoff phenomenon.
“He taught me how to watch film. Just showed me different ways to study, to approach my opponent. I was always good at it, but I realized you can’t be good at what you don’t know.”
This is what drives Woodson’s sense of duty — to his Packers teammates, to a storied franchise and to a football-rich region that embraced him as a free agent from Oakland four seasons ago. So it’s only fitting that Woodson — film study tutor, leader by example on the field and off — helps propel his teammates while anchoring them as a group, all at the same time.
“I get to make plays. For once, guys actually have to throw the ball at me,” says Woodson, who had a career-high five forced fumbles in 2010 and a 48-yard interception return for a touchdown, the 10th of his career, in Week 4 against Detroit.
Executing the intricate 3-4 scheme installed by Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers in ’09, Woodson enjoys watching the standout puzzle pieces converging on game days to become a football force of nature.
Playing opposite Woodson, Williams no longer is Al Harris’ part-time injury sub; he led the Packers with six picks and 23 passes defensed in the regular season. Not bad for an undrafted free agent from Louisiana Tech.
On Sunday, Williams will be watching Bears quarterback Jay Cutler for any sign of vulnerability. Cutler came into Week 17 with a 104.6 passer rating in his previous five games, but Green Bay’s defense held him to a 43.5 rating on 21-of-39 passing for 168 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 10-3 Packers victory.
“Coach (Capers) says you’re always going to get two or three plays that you can force (the quarterback) into. And he says we have to make him pay for that. And it’s gonna be big to make him pay for that. That’s the plan,” Williams said.
Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, a second-year whirlwind with his shaggy mane and propensity for getting to the quarterback, has the midfield covered. He came out of the blocks with six sacks in Weeks 1 and 2, the most by a Packer to start the season, and finished fourth in the NFL with 13.5 sacks.
The Elias Sports Bureau says Matthews is the first player since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 to post double-digit sacks and a defensive touchdown in each of his first two seasons.
The Packers’ scheme, Matthews said, has a low tolerance for mistakes, but allows for a high percentage of game-altering plays if everyone is in the right spot doing his individual job with precision.
This season, Green Bay’s defense finished second in the NFL in sacks with 47, and closed the regular season with six sacks in the finale against the same Bears team they’ll see on Championship Sunday.
“That’s why we’ve had so much success to date: it’s what you see on film, so many moving pieces,” said Matthews, who has the freedom in Capers’ scheme to drop back in coverage, rush the passer or clog the middle and devour running backs. “Everybody has a chance to shine.
“That’s why you see cornerbacks blitzing, you see myself going out and attacking, you see interior linemen, middle linebackers, safeties, all getting to the quarterback. So you really have an opportunity to bring pressure from everywhere and make those highlight plays.”
Second-year nose tackle B.J. Raji knows all about that. He got a call last week to come to the Packers’ offensive study room as the team prepared for what would be a 48-21 dismantling of the Falcons. His new job: line up as a pile driver for fullback John Kuhn. Take advantage of the athleticism that made him Green Bay’s most prolific interior lineman during the regular season with 39 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
Raji ran “32 Power” to perfection, jamming his 337 pounds through the hole and opening the path for a 1-yard TD run for Kuhn as the Pack tied the game at 14.
“That whole play maybe took five or 10 seconds; it wasn’t very long. It was quick, but it was fun,” said Raji, who will turn his attention back to defense this week.
“Winning the battles of first downs, managing the run game, keeping the other team predictable, getting them in third-and-long situations and taking advantage of Dom Capers’ scheme,” he said. “That’s what I need to do.”
Coach Mike McCarthy, much like Woodson, looks at the defense as an ideal blend of speed, skill, experience and youth, coming together at just the right time.
“We’re nobody’s underdog. We’re nobody’s favorite, either. I think that's our motto today as a team,” McCarthy said. “This group has a lot of confidence. We've never wavered from our goals. We've had challenges; everybody does. But we're here for a reason. We deserve to be here, and we're excited about getting to Chicago.”