GREEN BAY — Julius Peppers has talked all season about the development of the Packers defense being “a process.”
“Week to week, guys build more confidence in each other and build more confidence in the defense,” Peppers said in describing that process on Thursday.
Well, it’s time for that process to reach its peak.
On Sunday, Green Bay will face a Cowboys offense that is the most dangerous the Packers have seen since the Patriots in Week 13, and arguably the most balanced they’ve encountered all season.
The Packers, meanwhile, have steadily improved and climbed in the rankings over the second half of the season. They’re as confident as they’ve been while remaining perfectly aware that the most meaningful proof of their progress must be displayed this week.
The Cowboys bring the NFL’s top-rated passer in Tony Romo, the league’s leading rusher in DeMarco Murray and the league leader in TD receptions in Dez Bryant to Lambeau Field, along with an offensive line featuring three Pro Bowlers and a tight end in Jason Witten headed to the Hall of Fame someday.
That’s a lot to deal with, but the Packers are trusting the process, which used players creatively, employed numerous personnel packages throughout the regular season and, theoretically, built a defense more playoff-ready than any the Packers have possessed since 2010.
“It presents a challenge, but I think we’re all up for it,” linebacker Clay Matthews said of the Cowboys matchup. “We’re all ready to showcase this defense and what we’re about.”
In the second half of the season, the defense has been all about stopping the run, not allowing any running back to reach even 90 yards since Matthews was moved inside on some run downs following the bye.
Similarly, top opposing receivers have been held in check. Atlanta’s Julio Jones was the only one to have a big day against the Packers down the stretch. Otherwise, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s 98 yards served as the individual high against the Packers over the last six games.
“We’ve been doing a good job on those guys, and we just have to continue doing what we’re doing,” cornerback Tramon Williams said of the opponents’ go-to receivers, acknowledging that the secondary learned from its nightmare night against the Falcons’ Jones. “Obviously, it’s never going to be easy, but it’s always a team effort.”
Murray can create ball control and set up play-action, Bryant is strong when the ball is in the air and after he snags it, and then on third downs there’s the “smart, savvy” Witten, to use Matthews’ terms.
“It’s not about stopping, it’s about limiting,” cornerback Casey Hayward said of Dallas’ many weapons, which also include smaller but speedy receivers Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. “We need to be consistent and tackle well.”
Last week, Detroit nearly had Dallas shut out through the first half but broke down and allowed a big-play touchdown to Williams right before halftime. It took a late fourth-quarter drive for the Cowboys to top 20 points, but they got it done in the clutch.
For Green Bay’s defense, given everything that has led up to this, it’s as though crunch time begins with the first series on Sunday.
The process has been all about changing the frustrating, season-ending struggles of recent playoff seasons and finishing with a flourish.
“We’re trending in the right direction,” said Matthews, who finished the regular season with 6 1/2 sacks in the final four games. “You want to be playing your best ball at the end of the year, and defensively speaking we’ve been doing that. We’ve been playing very well.
“The offense is going to continue to put points on the board, continue to show up, so provided we can hold up our end of the bargain, we’ll be a pretty tough team to beat.”
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