The Packers’ defensive turnaround in the second half on Sunday was as impressive as it was necessary.
After the Jaguars rolled up 233 yards in the first half, and with the Packers offense scuffling along, the defense kept the Packers in control of the game with a dominant third quarter and propelled Green Bay to a 24-15 victory at Lambeau Field.
“The story of all last year was the offense bailing us out the whole year,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “We didn’t have to bail them out today or anything, but I felt we had to kind of stand up and make some plays and get off the field when we needed to, and today we did that.
“We want the offense to be able to count on us to do our job.”
The Packers did their job in the second half despite all the adjustments being made due to injuries. Veteran leader Charles Woodson was on the sideline with a headset rather than a helmet, inside linebacker Brad Jones was making just his second start in place of D.J. Smith, and cornerback Sam Shields and outside linebacker Nick Perry missed their second straight games.
Add in that defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Neal left the game banged up, and the unit’s depth was tested nearly to the max.
But the defense allowed just 108 yards and five first downs in the second half, starting things with three straight three-and-outs in the third quarter with the Packers leading just 14-12. Safety Morgan Burnett’s 15-yard sack on the Jaguars’ second snap of the period triggered the defensive spurt.
After the Jaguars gashed the Packers eight times for gains of at least 15 yards in the first half, that number was cut in half in the second. Jacksonville had just four more gains of 15-plus, and just one longer than 18 after halftime.
“We definitely were flat,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said of the early going. “It’s something that needs to be addressed and will be addressed. The stadium had a lack of energy. We had a lack of energy.
“But we made the plays that we needed to.”
The two biggest were in the fourth quarter.
With the Packers leading 21-12, the Jaguars faced third-and-5 from the Green Bay 12. Blaine Gabbert threw a swing pass in the flat to running back Rashad Jennings, but rookie safety Jerron McMillian was right there to tackle him for a 2-yard loss.
The Jaguars were forced to kick a field goal, the third time in the game the red zone defense rose up. The only time it didn’t was when the Packers offense turned the ball over on their own 13-yard line, giving the Jaguars a short field for their only TD.
“Anytime you get a team to just settle for three, that’s a plus,” Burnett said. The defense came into the game in the bottom third of the league in red zone defense (11 TDs in 17 possessions), so the change was a positive sign.
The other key fourth-quarter stop came on Jacksonville’s next drive. Trailing 21-15, the Jaguars reached midfield, but rookie Casey Hayward brought down receiver Justin Blackmon four yards short of the first down on third-and-10, and then the coverage on fourth down left Gabbert with a throw that was closer to cornerback Tramon Williams than anyone else.
“Our will to win is kind of our M.O. on this team,” Jones said. “The defense stepped up when we needed to. When we know the game is on the line and we need to step up, we did that.”
The defense also got off the schneid, finally, in the fumble department. On what proved to be the biggest defensive play of the first half, Jones forced Jennings to fumble on a run up the middle at the Green Bay 22-yard line and Burnett recovered, the Packers’ first defensive fumble recovery of the season.
“That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever been a part of – through seven games, we hadn’t recovered a fumble?” said nose tackle B.J. Raji, who played for the first time in three weeks following an ankle injury. “Hopefully, that sparks us for the rest of the season. Coach McCarthy really put an emphasis on it this week in practice.”
McCarthy credited the defense, particularly in the third quarter, for providing a needed boost for the team. Had the unit not tightened down – Gabbert had 195 yards passing at halftime – this one might have slipped away.
“You’re going to have to play four quarters, and today we did,” Hawk said. “Yeah, it might have been ugly or whatever, but we found a way to get it today.
“A win like this is not how we wanted it to play out, but I think it’s good for a team, for our team to fight through games like this and come out with a win.” Additional coverage - Packers vs. Jaguars