GREEN BAY, Wis. – With the Green Bay Packers suffering a second consecutive defeat in the NFC Championship Game, coach Matt LaFleur hired Joe Barry as his defensive coordinator. With a horrendous track record in Detroit and Washington, it was a widely criticized selection.
During the offseason, long after the first, second and third waves of free agency were complete, the Packers signed linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.
On Oct. 6, the day they failed to land former All-Pro Stephon Gilmore, they instead grabbed cornerback Rasul Douglas off the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad. It would be Douglas’ fourth team in about six weeks.
A day later, they took a flier on linebacker Jaylon Smith. A couple weeks later, Smith played more snaps than Krys Barnes.
On Sunday, the Packers hosted the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams had made the biggest in-season additions of any team this season when they traded for all-decade linebacker Von Miller and signed high-profile receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
The Packers limped into the game as 2-point underdogs against the fresh-as-a-daisy Rams but sailed out of Lambeau Field with a 36-28 victory. And those guys that nobody wanted played key roles.
While Campbell had a relatively quiet game with four tackles, Barnes contributed a team-high nine tackles, broke up one pass and recovered one fumble. Combined, they had a hand in limiting Rams running back Darrell Henderson to four catches for 18 yards and tight end Tyler Higbee to one catch (in five targets) for 3 yards.
Campbell might be the defense’s MVP this season but Douglas was one of the MVPs on Sunday. With Jaire Alexander out for the eighth consecutive game with a shoulder injury and Kevin King missing a sixth game with his latest injuries, Douglas has been a godsend.
“It’s like you say the same thing all the time when you’re talking about Rasul. How was this guy on the practice squad?” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “The dude has made so many plays for us. He’s got great instincts, good ball skills, opportunistic plays or us.”
Late in the third quarter, with Green Bay leading 30-17, Douglas showed those instincts and ball skills when he stepped in front of a pass to all-world receiver Cooper Kupp and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown.
Yes, Beckham beat Douglas for a 54-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter but Douglas finished the day with four breakups. The interception and one of the deflections came on third down.
“Rasul has been a huge pickup for us,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “You’ve got to give credit to Gutey [general manager Brian Gutekunst] and his staff for finding him. I just love how he competes. You see it play in and play out. The guy is so competitive. You see it in practice every day. Obviously, he’s made two plays that have made major impacts on games this year. Just really proud of his effort. I think our guys have really embraced him and took him in, and we’re lucky to have a guy like that. It’s rare that you find a guy like that midseason.”
To state the obvious, the Packers would be up a creek without Douglas. And, really, Douglas’ career would be going nowhere without the Packers.
He’s been everywhere, man.
A third-round pick by Philadelphia in 2017, Douglas started 11 games last season for Carolina. He signed with Las Vegas in free agency but failed to make the roster. He had a cup of coffee with Houston before he joined Arizona’s practice squad. With the game-saving interception at Arizona a few weeks later and his pick-six on Sunday, he’s truly gone from zero to hero after going without an interception the previous two seasons.
“It’s big. I think I give the defense and the coaches (the credit),” Douglas said. “They put me in position where I can make plays and allow me to make plays. It really is all on them, all the coaches. They put me in position.”
When Douglas arrived in Green Bay, he said he’d always dreamed of taking a Lambeau Leap. He did it on Sunday with his first pick-six since his final season at West Virginia in 2016. He might have had a second but another interception slipped through his hands.
“As soon as I got the ball, I was thinking try to score so I could Lambeau Leap,” Douglas said. “I think that’s what messed me up on my second one, thinking I’d get redemption on my Lambeau Leap because the first one wasn’t good enough. But it felt amazing, something I always wanted to do. I’m glad I got a chance to do it.”
The 28 points allowed notwithstanding, it was a strong bounce-back performance from a defense that had been dismantled in a 34-31 loss at Minnesota. To be sure, the 79-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson against Chandon Sullivan and the 54-yarder to Beckham against Douglas can’t happen. Sullivan might have tripped on Jefferson's foot as Jefferson made the catch, and it appeared safety Adrian Amos bit on Stafford's ball fake on the deep ball to Beckham.
But those two plays accounted for 133 of the 353 yards allowed. That means the Rams’ other 59 plays gained 220 yards. That’s 3.72 yards per play; the Rams entered the game averaging a league-best 6.20 yards per play.
Green Bay enters its badly needed by ranked fifth in scoring with 20.2 points allowed per game and seventh with 321.7 yards allowed per game. And Campbell, who nobody wanted, Barnes, who the Packers tried to replace, and Douglas, who was buried on a practice squad, are key reasons why.
Same with Barry. Barry had spent the past four seasons with the Rams as linebackers coach. With defensive coordinator Brandon Staley taking over as head coach of the Chargers, Rams coach Sean McVay could have promoted Barry. Instead, he hired Raheem Morris.
Barry has been a miracle worker in coaxing winning performances from a unit that’s gone without All-Pro Alexander and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith for most of the season.
“This week, guys came in and just were frustrated with how we lost and how we didn’t look well,” Douglas said. “This week, we made a big thing on it on it, that we were going to do the right things, that we were going to do our jobs and just make the plays that come to us and not try to make plays that are not for us. We knew the Rams had a good offense, just added a new guy Odell, so we knew they were going to come in pumped. They just had a bye week. We knew they were going to come out swinging, but we just stuck to what we know. Coach did a good job giving us a game plan, and we just followed through.”