GREEN BAY – Dom Capers’ checklist for the upcoming playoff game against the Redskins is pretty short.
The Packers’ defense needs to deny big plays, and make a few of their own.
“They have good skill, they have speed, they make a lot of big plays. That’s why they score a lot of points,” the defensive coordinator said of the Redskins’ offense, which features a deep perimeter group and a QB in Kirk Cousins whose 101.6 passer rating ranks fifth in the league.
Washington tight end Jordan Reed (pictured, 86) is the team’s leading receiver in all categories (87 receptions, 952 yards, 11 TDs). He’s joined by a reliable veteran in Pierre Garcon, a shifty rookie in Jamison Crowder and a deep threat in DeSean Jackson (pictured, 11).
“They can spread you out and throw it,” Capers said. “We’ll have to have a good week of preparation.”
Capers’ crew has enjoyed a good couple of months during which it has climbed in the league rankings. Since the loss at Carolina in Week 9, the Packers’ defense has risen from 23rd in total yards to 15th, from 23rd in passing yards to sixth, and from 19th on third down to ninth.
Capers rattled off the reasons for the steady rise on Monday. The emergence of rookie inside linebacker Jake Ryan, the experience gained by rookie cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, and the monitored snaps and freshness of veteran Julius Peppers – who reached double-digit sacks by getting to 10½ on Sunday night vs. Minnesota – are among the significant factors.
“You hope to find your niche, what’s working, what’s doing well for you,” Capers said of this stage of the season. “I’ve felt all along what you want to do is head into the playoffs with the arrow pointing up, and I think we can build off of some things we did (Sunday) night.”
The turnovers might be starting to come. The defense has generated three over the last two games, and no one needs to remind Capers of the role takeaways played in the Packers’ title run five years ago. The Packers returned interceptions for touchdowns in each of the final three postseason games.
“I thought Micah Hyde’s interception was a rare play, the way he intercepted that ball,” Capers said of Hyde’s one-handed snag of a Teddy Bridgewater mistake in Vikings’ territory. “Those are the kind of plays you have to make when you get in the playoffs. You have to find a way to make two or three plays to get the momentum heading in your direction.”
Green Bay’s offense needs to do the same thing, and preferably earlier than the fourth quarter, which was once again the setting for a productive but ultimately unsuccessful comeback on Sunday.
Washington’s defense comes into the playoffs in the top 10 in the NFL in takeaways, including a league-best 16 fumble recoveries. The Packers have lost four fumbles and compiled seven giveaways total in their last three games.
“We know we have to protect the football in order to advance,” Offensive Coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “It’s a new season, it’s the playoffs. Really everything you’ve done leading up to this point doesn’t matter. It’s what you do now.”
The Packers’ offense is entering the postseason in a shaky state, and the special teams are coming in off their first rough game in a while.
The Vikings ran for 41 yards on a fake punt on the game’s opening possession, and they later broke a 70-yard kickoff return that was negated by kicker Mason Crosby’s heads-up strip of the ball on the tackle attempt.
On the fake punt, Special Teams Coordinator Ron Zook said rookie tight end Kennard Backman lost outside leverage on the snap to the up back, receiver Adam Thielen. Backman was playing in just his seventh career game and had been inactive the previous two weeks. The play was run quickly and without hesitation by Minnesota.
“They snapped the ball awfully fast,” Zook said. “It wasn’t that they read anything or decided to do it or not, and they executed the play. They blocked it up well.
“It was there before (Backman) realized it. It was on him fast.”
The statistics don’t support it, but Zook believes his most dangerous unit coming into the postseason might be punt return. Micah Hyde, with three punt-return TDs in his first two seasons but nothing longer than 16 yards this year, had a 10-yard return on Sunday night that was close to being more, though it was nullified by a penalty on Jeff Janis far away from the play.
“I keep thinking we’re going to break one,” Zook said. “Our punt return is much better than the stats show. I still feel like we can return the ball.”
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