CHICAGO – The defensive game film will show plenty that the Packers need to work on, but it will also show a tremendous building block for 2015.
Twice in the fourth quarter on Sunday at Soldier Field, the Packers’ defense came up with stops to protect a one-score lead, first at the goal line and then with a game-changing interception by Clay Matthews that led to Green Bay’s final points in a season-opening 31-23 victory over the Bears.
“Hopefully it just shows the resiliency of this group of guys,” Matthews said. “We’re not going to sit here and act like we don’t have work to do, but it’s a barometer of where we need to go, and what we want to accomplish.”
Through three quarters, the best part of the defense’s performance was in the red zone, holding the Bears to three field goals in four scoring trips. They actually held them to four field goals, but an offside penalty on one kick led to a first-and-goal and eventual touchdown for the Bears.
The sloppy penalty was Green Bay’s third offsides on that drive alone, and a number of missed tackles contributed to the Bears rushing for 189 yards on the day, led by Matt Forte with 141.
The tough work in close was a sign of things to come, though, as midway through the fourth quarter the Packers stopped the Bears on three straight plays from the 2-yard line, protecting a 24-16 lead.
Linebacker Nate Palmer, filling in for an injured Sam Barrington most of the game, started the stand by tackling Forte out of bounds on a short pass at the 2. That preceded three straight incomplete passes, the last one on fourth down forced by blitzing safety Sean Richardson, who got in Jay Cutler’s face as his throw sailed over Eddie Royal’s head in the end zone.
“We know the ball’s gotta come out,” said cornerback Casey Hayward of when a blitz is called. Hayward was in coverage on Royal on fourth down. “Especially at the goal line, we’re expecting the ball to come out pretty fast. There’s not a lot of routes that can be run down there. (The coaches) do a great job of telling us, ‘Go off of first move,’ and that’s what we did.”
Added Matthews: “We need that, and it was huge.”
Matthews came up even bigger, though. A three-and-out by the Bears defense got the ball back to Chicago in good field position, and the defense had to rise up again.
One play after a third-down conversion on a pass to tight end Martellus Bennett, Matthews sniffed out a crossing route for Bennett and snagged Cutler’s waist-high pass, turning away another scoring chance.
“That was the play of the game, no doubt about it,” Julius Peppers said. “Clay came up big for us like he always does.”
Matthews was asked what his responsibilities were on the play, and he kept his explanation pretty simple.
“Get an interception,” he said, trying to keep a straight face. “Drop into coverage, make a pick, be the hero.”
Matthews had one of the two interceptions in the second half of last year’s game in Chicago that turned the tide. This one was Cutler’s only miscue of the day, but he has yet to quarterback the Bears against the Packers without throwing at least one pick.
The Packers converted the lone turnover into their final touchdown of the game, and the defense gave up one more score, forcing the game to come down to an onside kick.
That drive, with more missed tackles and an apparent busted coverage, provided more film for the Packers to put in the need-to-improve category.
But the first two fourth-quarter possessions, coming in a one-score game, will be something for the Packers to hang their hat on from Week 1.
“It definitely gives us a little momentum,” Hayward said. “We can try not to let them get down there, but we have to bow up and find a way to make those stops.”
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