GREEN BAY – Micah Hyde’s one-handed, backhanded interception could have changed last week’s game.
Mike Daniels’ acrobatic interception the week before could have done the same.
Those plays didn’t have the desired effect, as the Packers’ offense wasn’t able to capitalize against the playoff-bound Vikings and Cardinals, but they’re the kind of plays whose value only skyrockets in the postseason.
Green Bay’s defense is counting on making more of them.
“We have to be where we need to be, and do it violently and aggressively,” Daniels said.
It’s almost hard to believe, but only three current defensive veterans – Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and Sam Shields, who is still not cleared to practice via the concussion protocol – were part of the turnover-fueled playoff path of five years ago. Back then, 10 takeaways in four postseason games highlighted the road-warrior title run the Packers hope to begin Sunday in Washington.
On Thursday, Matthews recalled Tramon Williams’ multiple interceptions in Philadelphia and Atlanta, Raji’s pick-six in Chicago, and his own forced fumble in Super Bowl XLV, among other plays, as moments the defense came through when it absolutely had to.
“Those are all game-changing plays right there,” Matthews said. “We need to continue to do that. Hopefully we’ll be able to convert those into points, and that’ll be the difference in the game.”
Teams don’t make the playoffs by giving the ball away, of course, and Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has thrown just one interception in his last six games. Washington’s 22 giveaways in the regular season were middle of the pack in the league.
Led by a young QB several Packers defenders praised for his poise, the Redskins offense has all the complementary parts any coordinator and signal caller could ask for – a powerful, downhill runner in Alfred Morris, a dynamic tight end in Jordan Reed, a veteran possession receiver in Pierre Garcon, a constant deep threat in DeSean Jackson and a shifty slot guy in rookie Jamison Crowder.
Reed is probably the toughest matchup, a guy Matthews referred to as a receiver playing tight end. His yards-per-catch average (10.9) is actually slightly better than Garcon’s (10.8) and Crowder’s (10.2), and Reed’s 11 TD catches are by far the team’s high.
“I think they thrive on big plays,” said Julius Peppers, voted a defensive playoff captain along with Matthews. “I think that’s the challenge with these guys is defending the big plays and making them work the ball down the field.”
A lot of pressure will be on the Packers’ rookie cornerbacks, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, especially if Shields can’t play. They’ve answered the call thus far, and Randall said earlier this week he simply wants to “play with no regrets.”
The entire defense has been playing like that lately, even as the Packers enter the playoffs with two straight losses. In past years, so much has been made of Green Bay’s defense holding up its end in the postseason to support an explosive offense.
This year, it’s as though the script is flipped, which isn’t entirely satisfying in the big picture, but it’s a responsibility the defense is accepting, if not welcoming, right now.
“It’s good to finally have it the other way around where the defense is finally carrying their weight, but this week is more important than the last, and this is when it really counts,” Matthews said.
“We played very well last year as of late in the year and into the playoffs, but we didn’t finish. Really, we’re taking it upon ourselves to not only replicate what we were able to do last year in the playoffs, but finish, and see it through. Hopefully that’s the case. We know at this time, the defense is going to have to play big.”
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