Packers defense ready to step up, help carry playoff load
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Well, this is different for the Green Bay Packers.
The defense is playing better than the offense headed into the playoffs. Coach Mike McCarthy's team is ranked 15th in total defense and 23rd in total offense after the regular season.
It's an unexpected scenario for a team led by the offensive-minded McCarthy and two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
''We feel we're a balanced football team that can play well in all three areas. That's what we're focusing on for this week,'' McCarthy said Thursday.
Green Bay opens the playoffs as a wild card on the road Sunday against the Washington Redskins.
With Mike Daniels and B.J. Raji anchoring the line, Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews rushing the passer, and a young, but deep and solid secondary, the Packers might have a defense that is well equipped to carry the team for stretches through the playoffs, if needed.
''I think so,'' Matthews said. ''This is one of our better defenses. You look in years prior, the defense hasn't always been as balanced as the offense. So in that regard, I feel like we're playing well.''
They've been somewhat overshadowed by the well-documented challenges on offense.
The Packers are allowing 20.2 points a game, ranked 12th in the NFL. That would be more than enough in most seasons for the once-prolific offense.
''They're (keeping) them out of the end zone, making them kick field goals. Three and outs are up. They're being aggressive,'' McCarthy said about the defensive performance of late.
But this is no ordinary season for the Packers.
While the offense is struggling to string together consistent drives, the defense has held up, for the most part. And they've done it with top cornerback Sam Shields sidelined for most of the past three games with a concussion.
Defensive backs Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins have played relatively well for rookies, alongside fourth-year pro Casey Hayward. Hybrid safety-cornerback Micah Hyde put his big-play potential on display last week with his one-hand interception of Bridgewater.
This week, the Packers must contend with a surging Redskins offense and quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was selected as the NFC Offensive Player of the Month.
''They have safeties turned corners, corners turned safeties,'' Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. ''Those guys are lined up a little bit everywhere, and they do a great job of disguising their intent with their coverages, so they've been good.''
There has been such a disparity between the Packers offense and defense of late that Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton said after the Vikings loss that he would be frustrated if he was on the defensive side of the ball.
Just a few seasons back, it was the defense and coordinator Dom Capers that took more of the criticism.
What players can't do is ''expend any energy on something you don't control. If you do, it's wasted energy,'' Capers said this week when asked if he had to be on guard for any sense of frustration with his defensive players.
''To me, you show the strength of the defense by going out in those tough situations and performing, going out and making plays, try to set up our offense to put them in great field position,'' Capers said.
He knows what it takes to succeed in the postseason. Capers was the coordinator in the 2010 season, when the Packers finished in fifth in total defense and second in scoring defense in winning the Super Bowl.
Matthews and Raji were key contributors on that team, just as they are for this season.
''There's been some times when we haven't played great, but collectively I think we've played well this entire season,'' Raji said. ''I don't think that should change any.''
NOTES: The Packers' injury list grew to 18 on Thursday after Randall was added as a limited participant with a groin injury. ... LT David Bakhtiari (ankle) and LG Sitton (back), who returned to practice, were limited. ... Shields missed practice again.
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