Heading into Sunday night’s game against Dallas, a challenge for the special-teams units loomed in the form of rookie wide receiver Dez Bryant, who entered the game ranked No. 2 in the NFL with a 16.5-yard average on punt returns. He was also one of only two players in the league to post two touchdowns on punt returns this season, joining Chicago receiver Devin Hester.
Green Bay kept the explosive Bryant in check, limiting him to just 4 yards total on two punt returns, but it was a play on a Dallas kickoff return at the end of the first half that stood out even more for the special teams.
After the Packers had taken a 21-0 lead with just over two minutes remaining in the first half on an 8-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to wide receiver Greg Jennings, cornerback Jarrett Bush stripped returner Bryan McCann on the ensuing kickoff. Safety Nick Collins caught the ball in the air, and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown.
It was the fifth touchdown of the sixth-year safety’s career, but his first on special teams and first via fumble return.
“That’s what I do, that’s what I get paid to do, go out there and make plays,” Collins said. “If it takes special teams, offense, defense, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to go out there and do my job.”
It appeared that McCann’s knee may have been down before the ball came loose, but since the Cowboys had already used all three of their timeouts in the first half, they weren’t able to challenge it.
“I was looking for the challenge flag,” Collins said. “I was like, ‘Oh, they are going to throw a flag? Oh, no? A touchdown, gift for me?’ An early Christmas present.”
The special teams came up with their second takeaway of the night in the fourth quarter, with Bush having a hand in it again. Bryant muffed the catch on a 46-yard Tim Masthay punt, and Bush recovered at the Dallas 17. With the Packers leading 45-7, the Packers ran four running plays despite being in scoring position, turning the ball over on downs.
It was a night of firsts for rookie cornerback Sam Shields.
Late in the first quarter, Shields made a nifty one-handed interception of a Jon Kitna pass intended for wide receiver Miles Austin down the left sideline at the Green Bay 37, his first career pick. The offense quickly moved down the field and scored on a 9-yard pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to running back Brandon Jackson. It was the 15th straight game in which the Packers posted points off a takeaway at home, the longest current streak in the NFL.
Shields, who worked at kickoff returner in the preseason, was given his first chance to do so in a regular-season game to start the second half. He took David Buehler’s kick from 6 yards deep in the end zone out to the 43 for a 49-yard return, the longest by a Packer on his first career kickoff return since tight end Paul Coffman recorded a 52-yarder on Oct. 18, 1981, vs. San Francisco.
“I thought Sam played excellent,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “Worked Sam a lot, as you guys know, throughout the training camp. Once he became the starter on nickel, we tried to limit his special teams responsibilities as much as we could. Just the opportunity now to get him back there. You know, he had the one, did an excellent job bringing it out of the end zone. Sam adds a little different element to our kick return game than we've had.”
Keeping him in check
Green Bay knew all too well what Cowboys Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware was capable of, having seen him post four sacks and eight QB pressures in three games against the Packers from 2007-09.
Ware entered Sunday night’s game ranked tied for No. 2 in the league with eight sacks this season, but he was kept in check by the Packers line, matching up against Chad Clifton much of the evening.
Ware didn’t post a sack of Rodgers, and was limited to just two tackles. It was the second straight home game that Clifton has shut out a Pro Bowl pass rusher, with Vikings defensive end Jared Allen failing to record a sack against the veteran in Week 7.
“It was good pass protection,” Rodgers said of a line that allowed only one sack. “I thought Chad did a great job on DeMarcus and I just felt coach got me in a good rhythm early and I felt like I was moving in the pocket and not getting out too early, getting out at the right time, going through my progressions.
“I give coach a lot of credit because I think the way he called the game tonight offensively we got into a good flow and I thought my movement and the line’s protection was very good man-to-man.”
Back at it
Safety Atari Bigby, who was activated off the physically unable to perform list on Saturday, made his season debut on Sunday night.
Bigby had been sidelined since undergoing ankle surgery in August, and saw time on special teams and defense as he rotated in at strong safety with starter Charlie Peprah.
“It felt great,” Bigby said. “What a relief. I know my family and friends back home, they have been worried about me not playing. Just getting out there and showing my face, that was a win for me.”
The Packers focused on cutting down on penalties this offseason, and that emphasis has continued to pay dividends.
On Sunday night against Dallas, Green Bay was flagged for just two penalties, the third straight game being penalized three or fewer times.
It is the fifth game this season that the Packers have been called for three or fewer penalties, and Green Bay is 5-0 in those contests. The last time a Green Bay team was penalized three or fewer times in five games was in 1990 when the Packers recorded the same number.
The Packers’ 45 points on Sunday night were not only a season high, but the total also matched the most ever posted by Green Bay against Dallas.
Green Bay recorded 45 points two other times in the series, first in a 45-21 win over Dallas on Nov. 29, 1964, and then again on Nov. 23, 1997, in a 45-17 victory.
The 38-point win was the largest margin of victory by either team in the series, topping the record of 34 points by the Packers in their 41-7 win over Dallas on Nov. 13, 1960.
Defensive end Ryan Pickett re-injured his right ankle in the second quarter and did not return. McCarthy said after the game that X-rays were negative.
Wide receiver Brett Swain left in the second half to get an IV because of cramps, but he did return.