Lesser-knowns spark Packers defense
GREEN BAY—If you asked any fan before Sunday to name the players most likely to return the Green Bay Packers’ defense to respectability, Jarrett Bush and Sean Richardson would have ranked somewhere between the guy they worked out last week and a volunteer snow shoveler.
The Packers’ defense seemed way too far gone for a special teams ace and a recently activated PUP guy to inject some life into it.
But with the season about to be called at halftime because the defense no longer had a beating heart, Richardson helped stabilize the patient with solid safety play and Bush made sure it pulled through with two game-saving plays.
By no means were they the sole reason the Packers threw a shutout in the second half and escaped with a 22-21 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on a snowy Sunday. They just did what nobody else had been able to do much until the second half, which is play good, sound football.
“Everybody went out and gave it everything they had,” said end Johnny Jolly, who emerged from a dry spell with five tackles, including one for loss, a pass break-up and a fumble recovery. “We went into a little slump, but we stayed together. That was the main thing, staying together and we did that today and pulled it off.”
Based on the first half, it looked as if the Packers were ready to be packed up for the offseason. The defense had allowed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to throw touchdowns to two wide-open receivers and pound through the light snow for 64 rushing yards on 14 carries.
The missed tackles on running back Steven Jackson and the poor coverage by safety Morgan Burnett on both touchdowns played a big part in a 21-10 deficit and the less-than-capacity crowd booing the entire team as it walked off the field at halftime.
“That’s a first in five years for me,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “But you have to expect that. They’re called fanatics. They come here to watch good football and that first half was not good football, both sides of the ball.
“We responded and they cheered accordingly. Hopefully, we can get that second-half energy they brought the rest of the year.”
Bush sparked things in the second half. On consecutive series with the Packers clinging to a one-point lead, he made sure the Falcons were held scoreless.
On fourth and 5 at the Packers 33 with 2 minutes left, coordinator Dom Capers went to the dime package again and matched Bush up with veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez. Bush anticipated his route and was right on top of him.
“I saw it on tape numerous times, especially on fourth down,” Bush said of the route. “It was kind of a wide split so it gives him a lot of room to run the out and he kind of sets it up, gives you a little wiggle and he likes to push off, too.
“I kind of absorbed it, rolled with it and Ryan threw it late. I got my hands on it and he wasn’t able to catch it.”
Teammates mobbed Bush after he made the play.
“He’s predominantly a special teams captain for this team and an ace in that regard, but whenever we need him, he comes up and makes plays,” Matthews said. “Today, it was a huge play to come up big on Gonzalez. We needed him.”
Bush then ended the Falcons’ chances by picking off Ryan on third and 10 at the Atlanta 43 with 4 seconds left. This time he let Gonzalez go and ran under Harry Douglas’ route for the interception.
“I’m very happy for Jarrett Bush and the way he played today,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
Richardson, meanwhile, entered the game after safety M.D. Jennings missed a tackle on Drew Davis’ 36-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, The 6-2, 216-pound Richardson, playing in just his third game since coming off of PUP due to a herniated disc in his neck, didn’t do anything spectacular.
In fact, he only had one tackle. But he kept coming down from his deep safety position to help play the run. After averaging 4.9 yards per carry in the first half, the Falcons rushed 10 times for 19 yards in the second.
“Before the game all week Coach talked about getting Sean some reps,” Jennings said. “Once Sean got in, things started to go good and Coach just decided to go with the hot hand.”
Richardson said he felt comfortable in the defense and while he did miss a tackle, he gives the Packers something they’ve been lacking for a while, which is a big, physical safety who can run to the ball. He has a lot to prove still in playing sound pass coverage, but you can’t teach his size or physical nature.
Once the run defense tightened up, the Packers began to get some pressure on Ryan. Their first two series of the second half were three-and-outs with Ryan having to dump the ball off short of the first down and the secondary coming up to make the tackle on third down.
Then, with the Packers trailing, 21-16, the door swung open. Outside linebacker Mike Neal drove Falcons right tackle Jeremy Trueblood up the field and then countered with an inside move that left him a clear path to Ryan.
He hit the ball just as Ryan was bringing it up to throw and it popped straight up in the air. After a scramble for the ball, Jolly came up with it. It was Neal’s third sack in four games and the only one the Packers managed against Ryan.
After quarterback Matt Flynn completed a 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Andrew Quarless to give the Packers a 22-21 lead, the defense held three straight series, but one didn’t have much to do with them.
On third and 12 at the Packers 34, Capers flooded Ryan’s right side with blitzers. Ryan, however, had a wide receiver screen called on the left and had things set up for a big play.
As Douglas broke free, Ryan’s throw went high and off Douglas’ fingertips.
“That would have been a huge play,” said Packers cornerback Micah Hyde, who had a free run at Ryan. “They set that play up nice. They knew we were blitzing on that one. They set it up nice and it’s a good thing he didn’t catch that ball.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith went for a field goal and when Matt Bryant’s 52-yard attempt was short, the Packers held the lead.