It has turned into a cliché, you could say, but if clichés are so called because they supposedly contain truth, just how much truth is there to that thought?
Plenty, if you actually take a look at the Packers’ 13 victories this season (10 regular season, three postseason). It’s not that a different player made THE key defensive play with each successive victory, but you can point to a different player making something happen at a critical juncture to help produce the win.
“During the course of a game, if it's a 60-play game, there's probably three or four plays that have a big influence on determining the outcome of the game,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “The more people you can put out there to have a chance to make those kinds of plays, then the better your chances are. We've had a number of different players that have stepped up.”
The result has been a collective belief amongst the defensive players that someone will make the play that turns the game in their favor, because virtually everyone has at some point. Perhaps most important, that has carried over to the crunch-time, game-on-the-line situations, as the Packers have thwarted late fourth-quarter drives that could either tie the game or give the opponent the lead in seven of their 13 wins, including twice in the playoffs.
“It just gives us supreme confidence,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “When we’re on the field, no matter what the situation is, just confidence that somebody’s going to make a play. One or 11 can come up big at any moment, and we don’t even blink.”
So without further ado, here’s one observer’s list that puts the truth in the cliché – 13 victories, 13 different players and key moments. Some are the plays everyone remembers from the season, others have gotten lost in the shuffle but were pretty important nonetheless.
Week 1 at Philadelphia – Clay Matthews. He’s remembered as much for his three-sack game, including the sack of Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb that knocked him out of the game and re-introduced Michael Vick to the NFL. But the moment was fourth-and-1 from the Green Bay 42-yard line with the Packers lead 27-20 and two minutes left.
Matthews submarined two Philadelphia blockers at the snap, completely clogging where Vick (in the shotgun) was planning to run on a keeper. A host of teammates piled on, and the Packers got the stop, and the win.
Week 2 vs. Buffalo – Brandon Chillar. He unfortunately ended up on injured reserve around midseason, but Chillar helped the Packers take control against the Bills. Buffalo trailed just 13-7 on the opening drive of the third quarter when he picked off a third-down pass over the middle intended for Steve Johnson.
He returned it 9 yards to the Buffalo 39, and the offense took advantage with a touchdown drive to get some distance in a game the Packers won going away, 34-7.
Week 4 vs. Detroit – Mike Neal. This game is remembered more for Charles Woodson’s interception returned for a touchdown, plus Woodson’s three successive plays to stop the Lions in the fourth quarter for the 28-26 triumph.
But backtrack to early in the second quarter with the score tied at 7, and it was Neal (who also ended up on IR) knifing into the backfield to strip running back Jahvid Best just as he got a first-down handoff. Fellow defensive lineman Ryan Pickett recovered at the Detroit 24, a personal foul on the Lions put the ball on the 12, the offense was in the end zone a few snaps later and the Packers led the rest of the way.
Week 7 vs. Minnesota – Desmond Bishop. In just his third game as the full-time starter following Nick Barnett’s season-ending injury, Bishop made the play of a lifetime if there ever was one.
The Vikings had just fallen behind 21-17 when quarterback Brett Favre scrambled and tried to whip a short throw to Randy Moss just as rookie defensive end C.J. Wilson was diving at his midsection. The ill-advised pass went right to Bishop, who took off 32 yards the other way for a touchdown, giving the Packers what turned out to be the winning points in a season-changing 28-24 victory.
Week 8 at N.Y. Jets – Charlie Peprah. Less than a full month into his tenure as a starter at safety following the season-ending injury to rookie Morgan Burnett, Peprah helped seal the 9-0 shutout victory with two key pass break-ups in the fourth quarter.
With the Packers leading just 6-0 and a little over four minutes left, the Jets faced fourth-and-8 on the Green Bay 35 when quarterback Mark Sanchez fired deep down the left side for receiver Jerricho Cotchery, but Peprah was right there. Moments later, still 6-0, and Sanchez went deep over the middle to Cotchery again, with Peprah laying a big hit to separate him from the ball. The defense generated three turnovers that day, and Peprah wasn’t really involved in any of those plays, but the entire effort may have gone for naught if not for Peprah down the stretch.
Week 9 vs. Dallas – Sam Shields. In what turned into a 45-7 blowout, the Packers and Cowboys were scoreless late in the first quarter when Dallas quarterback Jon Kitna tried to go long down the right sideline to receiver Miles Austin.
Shields not only prevented a big gainer, he made maybe the most acrobatic interception of the season by the Packers, leaping as high as he could and hauling in Kitna’s throw with mostly just his left hand. Dallas didn’t get another first down until less than a minute remained in the first half, and by then it was 28-0.
Week 11 at Minnesota – Charles Woodson. This one became a runaway too (31-3), but it’s easy to forget the Vikings led 3-0 early in the second quarter and were driving to extend that lead. On third-and-8 from the Minnesota 46, Favre hit running back Toby Gerhart over the middle to pick up the first down and move into scoring territory, but as Gerhart ran into traffic, Woodson came flying across with one of his patented chops at the ball.
He got it out, A.J. Hawk recovered, and with the help of a key interception late in the first half by Tramon Williams (more on him later, of course), the Vikings never scored again.
Week 13 vs. San Francisco – Cullen Jenkins. The Packers were struggling early in this one and trailed 3-0 early in the second quarter when the 49ers had second-and-goal on the 2. Jenkins, who ended up pulling a calf muscle at the end of this game and missing the final four regular-season contests, bulled his way through San Francisco’s pass protection for an 8-yard sack of Troy Smith, forcing the 49ers to eventually settle for a field goal.
With the deficit just 6-0, all it took was a 57-yard TD pass to Greg Jennings a few minutes later and the Packers had a lead they would never relinquish in the 34-16 win.
Week 16 vs. N.Y. Giants – Nick Collins. There were a lot of players involved in this play, but it still seems almost a mystery how Collins actually came out of it with the ball. The Giants trailed 31-17 late in the third quarter but were driving when running back Brandon Jacobs broke a 21-yard run down the right sideline and Matthews caught up to him and punched the ball out from behind.
Then, chaos ensued. Collins overran the ball as he went out of bounds. Bishop did too, but he managed to reach down and tip the ball back just before it hit the white line. Collins never gave up, coming back onto the field and jumping into the pile, somehow recovering the ball amidst all the bodies, and the turnover kept the Giants from getting back in the game.
Later in the second half, Collins snagged an interception to set up the Packers’ final points in the 45-17 triumph, the second of three straight games Collins picked off a pass.
Week 17 vs. Chicago – Erik Walden. Collins of course had the big interception in the final minute to seal the 10-3 win and a playoff spot, but Walden won NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for an out-of-nowhere three-sack game.
First, he buried quarterback Jay Cutler for an 8-yard loss on third-and-goal from the 4, holding the Bears to a field goal and just a 3-0 lead late in the second quarter. Then, in the third quarter after the Packers had tied it at 3 and Chicago’s Danieal Manning returned the ensuing kickoff all the way out to midfield, Walden took over. On the first play of that series, he chased down Cutler with help from defensive end Howard Green for a 9-yard loss. Two snaps later, on third-and-15, he delayed a blitz up the middle and got Cutler again for an 11-yard loss, leading to a punt.
The Packers scored the game-winning touchdown five plays later.
NFC Wild Card at Philadelphia – A.J. Hawk. We’re not ignoring Williams’ game-ending interception in the end zone, but Hawk’s play a few minutes before that set the stage. The Eagles had just scored to get within 21-16, and they got a second crack at a 2-point conversion following a penalty.
But Hawk quickly got pressure on Vick and nearly smothered him, producing a feeble incompletion that didn’t allow the Eagles to settle for a tying field goal on their final drive, when they got inside the Green Bay 30. Vick was forced to go for the end zone, where Williams picked him off.
NFC Divisional at Atlanta – Tramon Williams. No better place for him on the list than here. He not only picked off another pass in the end zone, this one in the second quarter with the score tied at 14, but he forever changed the game with his 70-yard interception return for a score on the final play of the first half.
The Falcons were at the Green Bay 35, trailing 21-14, when they made the mistake of trying to get a little closer for a field goal. Williams made them pay, and instead of leading by only four points at the half, the Packers led by 14. The 10-point swing proved fatal for Atlanta in the 48-21 decision.
NFC Championship at Chicago – B.J. Raji. Shields was no less a hero in this one with his two interceptions, including the clincher in the final minute of the 21-14 win. But Raji made the play that will go down in Packers’ lore here when he dropped his 337-pound body back off the line of scrimmage and into coverage, foreign territory for most nose tackles.
Chicago’s third-string quarterback, Caleb Hanie, never saw him and his pass for running back Matt Forte went right to Raji, who waltzed 18 yards for the score and a 21-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter. He was downgraded by the coaching staff for holding the ball out too soon, and for his end-zone dance, but Raji put himself on the highlight reel for all eternity.
So there you have it, with one game to go. There are already more names on this list than players in the huddle at any given moment, so if there’s yet another name forthcoming from the Super Bowl, the options clearly are limited.
But it’s in that huddle, when a play has to be made, that this defense believes in everyone it sees.
“It’s almost like an unspoken thing,” Bishop said. “We make eye contact, and it’s like, ‘Let’s do it. This is what we do.’ It’s unspoken. Everybody feels it, though. Everybody knows. Whatever person gets the opportunity, they cash in.”
Additional coverage - Jan. 30