GREEN BAY, Wis. – For years, the Green Bay Packers sank or swim on the right arm of Aaron Rodgers. Typically, in a game like Sunday’s against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Packers would have sunk like a million tons of concrete given the offensive ineptitude during the second half.
Instead, the Packers are soaring back to Green Bay following a 14-12 victory that boosted their record to 2-1.
How rare was this kind of victory?
During the Rodgers era, the Packers were just 8-42 when scoring less than 20 points. That includes a miserable 2-18 since the start of the 2017 season. When scoring 14 or fewer points, the Packers were a feeble 3-26. Other than beating the Bears in the 2019 opener, their last such win came on Jan. 2, 2011 – a 10-3 victory over Chicago that propelled the Packers on their way to a Super Bowl triumph.
Do the Packers have that kind of defense? A championship-caliber defense? A defense capable of delivering in the biggest moments of the biggest games?
They did on Sunday, though that comes with the obvious caveat that the Buccaneers didn’t have 1,000-yard receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, veteran receiver Julio Jones or left tackle Donovan Smith.
That said, powerful running back Leonard Fournette carried 12 times for 35 yards, a 2.9-yard average that included a long run of just 6 yards. The Packers collected three sacks. Tom Brady completed a few passes for explosive gains but managed just 5.6 yards per dropback. Keisean Nixon and Quay Walker forced fumbles. They held the Bucs to zero or one first down on eight of 12 possessions.
The defense had to win this game. That was clear before kickoff. And it did.
Meanwhile, Pat O’Donnell punted seven times and pinned the Buccaneers inside their 20 on five occasions. Strong defense and excellent field position – overall, the Packers won the field-position battle by a whopping 144 yards – was the winning combination.
“I thought that was the story of the game,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “I think this game was won by our defense and on special teams. That allowed us to win this football game.”
The Packers led 14-3 late in the first half and were on their way to more until Aaron Jones fumbled at the 1 just before halftime. That play changed the tide. Green Bay’s next eight possessions ended with three punts, an interception and four more punts. Green Bay gained just three first downs on those series.
That’s normally a recipe for disaster against the legendary Brady.
“Normally, yes, but our defense was playing so good,” Rodgers said. “The only couple times they got into a rhythm, we caused turnovers.”
A low-scoring game was the obvious expectation given the injuries on Tampa Bay’s offense, the post-Davante Adams transition of Green Bay’s offense and the firepower of both defenses. The Buccaneers allowed just 13 points in two season-opening victories. Even LaFleur has called that unit, not his own, the best defense in football.
“We kind of knew coming in,” said the hero of the game, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who broke up a pass on a two-point play that would have forced overtime. “They got a really good defense. We got a really good defense. It was just going to be about who can play better for longer. I think we were able to do that.”
The Packers lost star cornerback Jaire Alexander on the opening series with a groin injury. The Packers responded by pushing Rasul Douglas from the slot to the outside and inserting special-teams ace Nixon into the slot. Nixon was superb with a deep breakup, forced fumble and catch of an O’Donnell punt highlighting a busy day.
“It’s a high standard and that whole room is going to look up to it, including me,” Nixon said.
If you think a victory over the likes of Brady is good for the defense’s confidence, you’re misreading the room. The Packers know they have a good defense. Maybe even a great defense. Sunday’s performance was merely confirmation.
“We always had confidence,” Nixon said. “We’re going to get better every week. The confidence is always going to be there. Our standard is high, we’re going to play it high.”
Added Campbell: “We don’t need to play the Bucs to get no confidence. We know how good we can be. Everybody got their own opinions but we know what’s up.”