De­fense makes state­ment in open­ing vic­tory

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Last Jan­uary, a score­less half of foot­ball in the NFC Cham­pi­onship Game all but ended the Green Bay Pack­ers’ as­pi­ra­tions of play­ing for a Su­per Bowl.

On Sun­day, a score­less half of foot­ball to start the 2017 sea­son wasn’t nearly the death blow it was nine months ear­lier.

The Pack­ers can thank a re­ju­ve­nated de­fense that proved ca­pa­ble of bail­ing out the slow­start­ing of­fense for help­ing pro­duce a 17-9 win over the vis­it­ing Seat­tle Sea­hawks on Sun­day at Lam­beau Field.

“This re­ally started with our de­fense,” Green Bay Pack­ers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I thought our de­fense played at an ex­tremely high level. You hold an of­fense to nine points in to­day’s NFL, that speaks vol­umes.”

The Sea­hawks held the Pack­ers’ high-pow­ered of­fense to zero points over the first 30 min­utes. Thanks to the early dom­i­nance of the Green Bay de­fense, Seat­tle went into the half­time locker room with noth­ing more than a 3-0 lead – a far cry from the 24-0 ad­van­tage held by the Fal­cons to start last year’s NFC ti­tle game.

This time around, the de­fense kept the Pack­ers in the game and then de­liv­ered the game-turn­ing play early in the sec­ond half.

Aaron Rodgers and the of­fense sput­tered through five unin­spir­ing plays and punted to start the third quar­ter, giv­ing Seat­tle a chance to ex­tend its lead on the first drive of the sec­ond half. The se­quence pro­vided a mo­men­tary flash­back to Jan­uary, when the Fal­cons forced a Pack­ers’ punt and re­ceiver Julio Jones rum­bled through the Green Bay sec­ondary for a 75-yard touch­down to open the third quar­ter, ef­fec­tively end­ing the con­test be­fore the Pack­ers had any chance to mount a come­back.

The de­fense pushed back to start the sec­ond half on Sun­day.

On first down of Seat­tle’s first se­ries, Mike Daniels and Nick Perry whipped the Sea- hawks of­fen­sive line and met in the back­field to sack Russell Wilson. A play later, Perry and Kenny Clark worked off blocks and stuffed Sea­hawks rookie run­ning back Chris Car­son af­ter a short gain, set­ting up thir­dand-long and a chance for Daniels to change the game.

The Pack­ers needed a spark, and the heart and soul of the de­fense pro­vided it.

Daniels cleanly beat the block at­tempt of Sea­hawks left guard Luke Joeckel to the inside, us­ing his strength to mus­cle his way into the back­field and his quick­ness to col­lapse the pocket in front of Wilson. The Sea­hawks mo­bile quar­ter­back had no chance to dance away from Daniels, who jarred the ball loose as Wilson at­tempted to step up and es­cape the pocket. Pack­ers sec­ond-year out­side linebacker Kyler Fack­rell re­cov­ered the fum­ble at Seat­tle’s 6-yard line.

McCarthy called the play a “mo­men­tum turn­ing point.”

Sud­denly, a strug­gling of­fense was in busi­ness. A play af­ter the turnover, Pack­ers run­ning back Ty Montgomery pow­ered into the end zone be­hind the blocks of cen­ter Corey Lins­ley and tight end Martel­lus Ben­nett to give Green Bay a 7-3 lead.

The Pack­ers of­fense con­trolled the rest of the con­test. The Sea­hawks failed to score a touch­down, set­tling for three field goals.

“When the de­fense plays like that we’re go­ing to be tough to beat,” Rodgers said. “They were fan­tas­tic, (got a) big turnover that got us seven points (with) a six-yard field, one-play touch­down drive when our of­fense was stalling. That kind of got ev­ery­body go­ing. They were the stars of the game for sure.”

The de­fense cre­ated no such play in At­lanta. The bail out for a sput­ter­ing of­fense never came, and the Fal­cons used a 31-0 start as a sail to the wind on their way to the Su­per Bowl.

The Pack­ers de­fense ap­pears bet­ter pre­pared to pro­vide a steady­ing force in 2017. A pass-rush that barely both­ered Fal­cons quar­ter­back Matt Ryan in Jan­uary ha­rassed Wilson from start to fin­ish at Lam­beau Field. He took three sacks and avoided a half-dozen oth­ers.

“They just did their job. They did what they needed to do,” Sea­hawks re­ceiver Tyler Lock­ett said. “Their front seven put pres­sure on us, and when you put pres­sure on, it makes it tough for Russell to be able to throw the ball. He didn’t have time.”

Wilson called it a “great de­fen­sive per­for­mance” by the Pack­ers, who held him to just 158 yards pass­ing. The Sea­hawks fin­ished with 225 to­tal yards and only 12 first downs.

Daniels and Perry were dom­i­nant forces in the front seven, Morgan Bur­nett played al­most ex­clu­sively at linebacker in the “Ni­tro” pack­age and the cor­ner­back group al­lowed only two pass­ing plays over 20 yards, one of which ar­rived af­ter Wilson scram­bled away from pres­sure. The Pack­ers held the Sea­hawks to just 90 yards rush­ing de­spite rarely lining up in the base de­fense.

It was the kind of win a be­lea­guered de­fense needed to start the sea­son.

“We’ve been work­ing to­gether so long, so hard, for this moment, for this sea­son, dat­ing all the way back to the spring,” Bur­nett said. “So guys, we’re pre­pared. Only thing we have to do is just trust the process, stay to­gether, don’t get too high with the highs or too low with the lows.”

How rare was Sun­day’s win? The vic­tory marked only the third time since Rodgers took over as the start­ing quar­ter­back that Green Bay has won at home by scor­ing 17 points or fewer. De­fen­sive bat­tles aren’t com­mon at Lam­beau Field.

The Pack­ers prob­a­bly won’t go into At­lanta’s new sta­dium this week­end and beat the Fal­cons by scor­ing 17 points. With Rodgers at quar­ter­back and a bevy of of­fen­sive weapons, the of­fense can be con­fi­dent about even­tu­ally get­ting on track. The group won’t be fac­ing the tal­ent Seat­tle pos­sesses on de­fense each and ev­ery week, and Rodgers ad­mit­ted the Pack­ers were bet­ter on of­fense – hold­ing the ball for over 40 min­utes – than the fi­nal score in­di­cated.

Yet, if Week 1 re­vealed any­thing, it’s that the Pack­ers ap­pear to have a de­fense with the ca­pa­bil­ity of sta­bi­liz­ing the team when the of­fense sput­ters. The Sea­hawks had nu­mer­ous op­por­tu­ni­ties to take con­trol of Sun­day’s game with Rodgers stum­bling, but Green Bay’s de­fense rose to the oc­ca­sion. More than likely, the road to the Su­per Bowl will re­quire more steady­ing mo­ments from a de­fense that passed its first test of 2017 with fly­ing col­ors.

MARK HOFF­MAN / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Pack­ers out­side linebacker Nick Perry cel­e­brates a sack of Sea­hawks quar­ter­back Russell Wilson dur­ing the third quar­ter. Perry and de­fen­sive tackle Mike Daniels (right) were dom­i­nant in Green Bay’s front seven on Sun­day.

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