GREEN BAY – For all the things the Packers’ defense did well on Sunday – six sacks, a goal-line stand, holding the Redskins to 1-of-4 in the red zone – Dom Capers needs to see more.
Specifically, more turnovers.
Mike Neal’s sack-fumble-recovery near midfield in the second quarter was a turning point in the wild-card victory at Washington, but the Packers had other chances to turn the ball over that got away.
Clay Matthews forced a fumble on his first sack of Kirk Cousins, but Cousins was able to recover. Casey Hayward appeared headed for a pick-six when Redskins tight end Jordan Reed snagged the pass one-handed and picked up 20 yards. Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett both had a bead on a deep ball for DeSean Jackson, but they collided in midair and neither got what looked like a sure interception.
Those are the moments the Packers must capitalize on against the league’s top offensive team in Arizona on Saturday night.
“You just have to make your plays when you have an opportunity,” Capers said on Monday. “When that ball is in the air, we have to come up with it. We have to find a way to turn those plays into takeaways.”
That would be a great way to slow down an Arizona receiving corps that Capers calls the best and deepest in the league. Veteran QB Carson Palmer’s trio of Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd combined for more than 3,000 yards and 22 TDs in the regular season.
“These guys have speed, they have size. With Fitzgerald, they’ve got a lot of years in the league,” Capers said. “You look at their productivity, their top three receivers, I don’t think anyone else has that kind of productivity. We’re well aware of the challenge we have.”
It would help to get cornerback Sam Shields back from his concussion, which kept him out of the first meeting with Arizona in Week 16, but that won’t be known until later in the week. Rookie corner Quinten Rollins also left Sunday’s game with a quad injury, forcing undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter and second-year man Demetri Goodson into action in Capers’ dime defense at times in Washington.
Defensive depth was valuable up front, too, as the Packers spread out their six sacks among four different pass rushers. Including all 17 games this season, the Packers now have five players with at least 4½ sacks (Julius Peppers 10½, Matthews 8, Neal 6, Nick Perry 5½, Mike Daniels 4½).
“The toughest thing in this game from a physical standpoint is rushing the passer,” Capers said. “If you can keep guys fresh, the same thing happens (with fatigue) to those O-linemen.”
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers’ offensive and defensive linemen were the game ball winners for Sunday’s performance. The offensive line is hoping to get left tackle David Bakhtiari back from his ankle injury, but nothing is certain yet.
The offense had its most productive game since the early stages of the season, with the tempo, run-pass balance and playmaking in the passing game all near optimal levels over the final three quarters.
Offensive Coordinator Edgar Bennett said a performance like that under the stress and urgency of the playoffs can definitely be a momentum-builder. Facing Arizona’s fifth-ranked defense as opposed to Washington’s 28th-ranked unit will make it harder to keep that momentum going, but Bennett said the offense is “excited” about what’s next.
“We’re capable of playing at that high level every single time we step on that field,” Bennett said. “I think our guys know what it takes. We have some tremendous veteran players that have been in these situations before.”
On special teams, Coordinator Ron Zook likes how his units are playing but is wary of Cardinals punt returner Patrick Peterson. His long return this year is 38 yards and he had just nine yards on two returns in Week 16, but he returned four punts for scores as a rookie back in 2011.
“Earlier in the year, he took a few more chances,” Zook said. “I’d expect him to get back to that. He’s got a rocket in his tail and he can go.
“This is a team that’s had a week off, so they’ll have some new tricks. You have to be sound. You have to be on your p’s and q’s.”