CHARLOTTE – The Packers are making it their defense’s trademark to rise up when it’s most needed.
On Sunday against Carolina, the Green Bay offense seized the moment, too.
A fourth-down stop inside the Green Bay 5-yard line with just over three minutes to go was followed two snaps later by an 84-yard touchdown pass to put the Panthers away and improve the Packers to 2-0.
The 30-23 victory was officially secure when receiver Donald Driver, who earlier set the all-time franchise record for receiving yardage, recovered a Carolina onside kick with 37 seconds left.
But it was the red-zone defense and quick-strike offense that made the difference at crunch time, keeping the Panthers from tying the game and then putting them in desperation mode.
“It’s going to be a weekly grind,” said receiver Jordy Nelson, whose only catch of the day was the long TD that gave the Packers breathing room. “Every week it’s going to be someone different on offense, defense or special teams stepping up for us to win the game.”
For the defense, it was the second straight week the unit came up big with the game on the line, having stopped the Saints at the 1-yard line on the game’s final play in the opener.
“That’s the name of the game,” said cornerback Charles Woodson, who had a huge day with two interceptions and a fumble recovery. “No matter how many plays a team makes against you, when you have to come up big at the end of the game, that’s what you’re expected to do.
“We came up with another big one down there in their red zone today. You gotta stop them when you gotta stop them, and we were able to do it.”
The Packers had rallied from an early 13-0 deficit with 23 straight points, with the help of three straight Carolina turnovers to open the second half. But then Green Bay was on the verge of letting its own lead slip away.
Trailing 23-16, Carolina faced third-and-1 at the Green Bay 3-yard line with four minutes to play when two of the Packers’ young defenders made highlight-reel tackles.
First it was second-year safety Morgan Burnett who chased quarterback Cam Newton out of the pocket and dragged the big man down for a 3-yard loss.
“I saw him sprinting out and my man stayed in to block, so I just added to the rush,” Burnett said. “I know he’s a big guy, so I was just trying to make a good, strong tackle and stop him from getting the first down.”
Then, on fourth-and-4 from the 6, Newton tried to scramble up the middle, only to run into linebacker Clay Matthews, who hauled Newton down just one yard shy of the first down.
Crisis averted, ball back to the offense. By game’s end, Newton had thrown for 432 yards and the Panthers had gained 475 in all, but once again the defense didn’t yield at the most critical moments.
“It does show the resilience of this defense, what we’re all about and finishing to the last play,” Matthews said. “That’s what it’s come down to two weeks in a row.”
The offense was in a similar position last week, as well, needing one more first down to ice the game. The unit got that and then some this time.
Taking over on their own 4-yard line, the Packers needed just two plays to go the length of the field. Running back James Starks burst through the middle for 12 yards, capping a strong second half in which he rushed for 79 of his 85 yards.
Then, with the Panthers clearly expecting run, quarterback Aaron Rodgers hit Nelson on a slant pass the fourth-year receiver took the distance, getting a nice downfield block from fellow receiver Greg Jennings along the way.
“That was a knockout punch,” tight end Jermichael Finley said. “Huge play by Jordy. We’ve got plenty of playmakers on this team, and that shows you right there.”
Nelson hadn’t caught a pass all day and he didn’t even sniff anything big when he came to the line for that play. The mentality was to move the chains. Scoring was a nice bonus.
“Backed up like that, we weren’t thinking touchdown, we were just thinking get it out of there to begin with,” Nelson said. “It was just a typical route, and it was going to be a good conversion to get a first down, but the deep safety fell down and allowed me to get up the field.”
The long TD pass was the second of the second half for Rodgers, who also hit Jennings for a 49-yard score in the third quarter.
After an erratic first half that saw the Packers score just once in four possessions and fumble away a kickoff, Rodgers completed nine of 13 passes for 209 yards and both scores in the second half.
Meanwhile the defense had kept Carolina’s early surge from getting out of hand, stopping the Panthers twice in the red zone to force field goals and keep the early deficit a manageable 13-0.
There was no panic then, nor when the game was in the balance late.
“That team came out swinging, but we were able to withstand their blows today,” Woodson said. “We were able to buckle down, make the plays when we needed to make them and close the deal down.” Additional coverage - Sept. 18