DALLAS -- The Packers' defense has been so good since the second half of the season that it's easy to forget how far the unit has come in its second season under coordinator Dom Capers. However for those needing a reminder, take a stroll back to last season's wild-card round, when Green Bay absorbed its last playoff defeat.
The lingering image from that game is quarterback Aaron Rodgers losing a fumble three plays into overtime, and linebacker Karlos Dansby grabbing the loose ball out of the air and returning it 17 yards for a 51-45 victory. To Packers defenders, another memory is burned into their consciousness. It's of Kurt Warner completing 22 of 33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns without being intercepted once.
His passing rating was 154.1. A perfect rating is 158.3.
If you think those numbers didn't stick in the craw of the Packers during the offseason, consider this: Green Bay held opposing quarterbacks to the league's lowest passer rating (67.2) this season, and only Pittsburgh recorded more takeaways and allowed fewer points than the Packers.
Almost across the board the unit has turned last season's negatives into this year's positives. For instance:
"We weren't very good in adversity situations a year ago," Capers says. "When we had to go on the field, on our side of the field, whether it be a turnover or big return, people scored points a high percentage of the time against us. We placed a lot of emphasis on that in the offseason, put together teaching tapes and just talked about it."
End result: The Packers have gone from allowing a league-high average of 4.39 points after turnovers to surrendering just 1.77. Only three teams had a lower average this year.
"To me, what it comes down to is what kind of confidence you have, guys not trying to do too much," Capers says. "When you get in those pressure situations, guys try to get out of their box and try to make a play and you end up leaving yourself vulnerable. It's all about confidence. Guys rallying together and saying, we're going to go out and find a way to keep them out of the end zone. I think for the most part, we've done a good job of that all year."
Perhaps, but the Packers' turnaround on defense has as much to do with comfort as it does confidence. Last year was their first season in Capers' 3-4 scheme and it took time to grasp its nuances. There was too much thinking and not enough reacting. Opponents capitalized by scoring at least 30 points in six games, including the Cardinals in that playoff victory.
This year Green Bay held all but one opponent below 30 points. And unlike in that loss to Arizona, it intercepted at least one pass in 16 of 19 games this year, including the postseason.
"The guys have a better understanding, and you can see a more cohesive unit now," Caper says. "They do a better job of communicating, and I think they know where the parts fit together. We've certainly had a lot of moving parts because we've had so many injuries, and we've had to adjust our scheme based on who's in there. The young players have stepped up and our backup players have done a great job. They've really given us the opportunity that we have this Sunday."
The Packers are in Super Bowl XLV against the Steelers largely because so many youngsters have met the challenge, particularly in the secondary. Cornerback Tramon Williams has become a ballhawk in his first year as the full-time starter, and undrafted rookie Sam Shields has been better than anyone envisioned as the nickel 'back. Their development allows 2009 Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson to be a wild card. The veteran corner can slide into the slot in passing situations, where he can lock down a receiver or use his physicality as a blitzer and run defender.
Another youngster who has stepped up is second-year defensive lineman B.J. Raji, who has been a force the second half of the season. His interception return for a touchdown against the Bears was the difference in the NFC Championship Game.
"B.J.'s a great example of a young, talented player in the second year and understands his assignments and the schemes so much better than he did a year ago," says Capers. "He's been able to stay healthy. He's played more snaps than any of our defensive front guys. I think that he's far more of a pro now than he's ever been in terms of understanding all the little things at his position. He's like a sponge. He'll ask questions, and he's a smart guy. I think it's really helped his play, and I think he's played his best football down the stretch here."
Adds Woodson: "The thing about the league now is that you come in as a young player and there's no time to develop. You're expected to play. You're expected to play well, and nobody's going to make excuses for you if you don't play well. These guys, week in and week out, they've just been making big plays for this team."
Williams and Shields must show up Sunday because Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger torched the Packers for 503 yards passing in a 37-36 victory in December 2009. He completed passes to seven receivers, including two running backs, and threw for three scores with no interceptions. Speedy wideout Mike Wallace had touchdown catches of 60 and 19 yards.
"It was embarrassing," defensive lineman Ryan Pickett says of that game. "To give up the kind of yards we gave up against Pittsburgh last year, we definitely are motivated. The tape wasn't easy to watch. They did everything they pretty much wanted on us. Like you said, 500 yards passing, I don't know how many yards rushing, but it was probably a lot of rushing, too. But they just moved the ball up and down the field on us. It was kind of hard to watch."
Many of the names on the Packers' defense may be the same from that game, but the defense is completely different.