Don’t let the final numbers fool you. The Green Bay Packers defense had a big day against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
The final stat sheet says Joe Flacco threw for 345 yards and two touchdowns and had a passer rating of 112.6 against the Packers defense, but what it doesn’t say is that 141 of these passing yards came in the fourth quarter with Green Bay in their prevent defense and trying to protect their lead. Not to mention the 63-yard completion on 4th-and-21 late in the fourth quarter that led to the Ravens’ second touchdown of the game on the following play. The stat sheet won’t tell you that safety Jerron McMillian slipped and allowed his man to get open beyond the first down in the middle of the field.
But enough excuses. I don’t want to sit here and reason away the few hiccups the Packers defense had on Sunday. As a unit, they still need to improve in the fourth quarter.
In fact, the Packers defense has been excellent in the first three quarters over the past four games. In this span, they’ve only given up an average of 8.5 points per game in the first three quarters. Compare this to the 11.5 points they’ve given up on average in the fourth quarter during this time. They’re so close in putting together a completely dominant performance on defense, but it’s just the fourth quarter meltdowns that continue to be the caveat each week.
Despite a few areas they still need to improve upon, in my opinion, the defense took a big step forward in Sunday’s 19-17 win over Baltimore, and they did it without their top playmaker, Clay Matthews.
With the Packers offense struggling early on, it was the defense, led by a great performance from A.J. Hawk, that set the tone of the game. They held Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice to 34 yards rushing for a 2.4 yards rushing average. They pressured Flacco all game and recorded five sacks and forced a fumble. They held the Ravens to 2 for 14 on third down, including seven three-and-outs in the first three quarters. And, they prevented the Ravens from scoring on the goal line on four straight tries. Was there anything more impressive in the game than that goal line stand?
The stats or rankings may not always show it, but the Packers defense is a group that is improving each and every week. Young players are stepping up and making plays.
With Matthews out, Nick Perry made a splash play for the second week in a row. Rushing from the right side, he stripped the ball from Flacco as the quarterback was stepping back to pass, and rookie defense end Datone Jones scooped up the ball and returned it 20 yards to set up a field goal just before the half.
Rookie corner, Micah Hyde, got some playing time in the nickel and had a breakout game. He recorded seven tackles and one sack and was physical in run defense. He also proved to be an effective punt returner, returning five punts with a 13.6 yard average.
Sam Shields may have been the game’s unsung hero. Going into this game, Torrey Smith led the league in receiving yards per reception (20.6) and is arguably the NFL’s most dangerous deep threat. Shields shadowed Smith the entire contest and held the standout receiver to just one catch for 12 yards. Smith was a non-factor in the game, and it just goes to show how Shields continues to prove he’s the team’s top cover corner.
Finally, how could I talk about the Packers impressive defensive performance without going on in length about Hawk’s play on the field. The Packers veteran inside linebacker is probably the most overly-scrutinized player on the team. This is something I just will never understand. As a Hawk apologist, I have to admit it was nice to see him fly around the field and make plays. I feel a little justified for defending him all these years.
Hawk’s performance against a physical Baltimore team was nothing short of impressive. He finished the day with ten tackles, three sacks, and five tackles for a loss. With Matthews out, Hawk was let loose, and he came up big in the game. He was instrumental in the Packers goal line stand, and he showed everyone the player he can be when given the opportunity.
I think we take for granted the fact that players like Hawk often take a back seat so guys like Matthews can make the big play. Hawk still struggles at times, specifically in coverage, but he’s a force against the run and proved he can be an effective blitzer.
So let’s hang up our criticism and nagging that Hawk just doesn’t make any splash plays. Sunday, he proved otherwise.
With other solid performances from young players, like Jamari Lattimore and Morgan Burnett, the Packers defense is heading in a good direction. Going forward, they need to put together that complete game and avoid giving up the fourth quarter scoring drives that continue to be an annoying footnote to an otherwise solid performance by the defense.
We’ll see how they do this week at home against the Cleveland Browns because despite the what the rankings may say, this is a defense to get excited about.