Dougherty: This time, it's the defense that delivers in a huge win for the Packers
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Joe Barry’s defense won the Green Bay Packers a big game.
That’s news, because there was good reason to wonder whether it could handle playmaking talent like Arizona has in Kyler Murray.
But on Thursday night at State Farm Stadium, the Packers went out and executed Barry’s game plan as well as he and the rest of the team’s coaching staff could have hoped. They did it under trying circumstances with Barry at home with COVID-19 and assistant Jerry Gray calling plays in his place. And they did it without two of their most important defensive players, injured Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith.
BOX SCORE: Packers 24, Cardinals 21
But with great discipline and effort, the Packers did the one thing they absolutely had to do, the one thing everyone surely tries, but most fail, to do against Arizona: They kept Murray in the pocket down after down after down, which prevented the early leader in the NFL’s MVP race from beating them with his running and throwing outside the pocket.
The Packers won first and foremost because they became only the second team in eight games this season to hold Murray and the Cardinals under 30 points. The defense also won the game literally by making the game-winning play in the final seconds, a stunning interception of Murray by newcomer Rasul Douglas in the end zone with 12 seconds to play that sealed the 24-21 win.
What a different world the Packers inhabit than seven weeks ago, when they opened the season with an embarrassing 38-3 loss against New Orleans. Even if Douglas hadn’t saved the day, and the Packers had lost in the final seconds, it wouldn’t have been a defeat to pin on their defense.
“I can’t say enough about how far we’ve come from Week 1 to where we are right now,” coach Matt LaFleur said of Barry’s defense. “I think those guys are really playing hard, I think they’re communicating really well, and I think we’re playing at a high level against one of the best offenses in the National Football League. It definitely was not easy, but I thought our guys, especially defensively, did as good as we could have done.”
The win, which ties the Packers for the best record in the NFC at 7-1, all came down to containing Murray. He’s as dynamic a quarterback as there is in the game and came into Thursday night with the league’s second-highest passer rating (116.8) and a highlight reel of scramble runs and throws that sends shivers down the spines of defensive coordinators around the league.
The Packers followed the same game plan San Francisco used in a 17-10 loss to the Cardinals in Week 5: Keep Murray in the pocket at all costs, carefully pick your spots to send extra rushers, and play plenty of zone defense behind that pass rush so all eyes could react to Murray.
It could not have worked much better. Despite being ultra-lane conscious rushing Murray, the Packers sacked him twice — one by Dean Lowry, the other by De’Vondre Campbell, who truly has been a revelation as a late free-agent signing. They had Murray on his heels or on the run more than occasionally, and those runs were for survival, not his usual backbreaking third-down conversions — he rushed for only 21 yards on six carries.
They also intercepted him twice — Douglas at the end, and Henry Black after Rashan Gary pressured Murray on a throw that caromed off Rondale Moore’s hands at the start of the third quarter to set up a Packers touchdown that opened their 17-7 lead.
Murray’s numbers (67.0 rating, 274 yards passing) were hardly the kind he had put up in leading the Cardinals to a 7-0 start.
“We didn’t let him run all over us,” Aaron Rodgers said of his quarterback counterpart. “I thought we kept him in the pocket pretty good, kinda had him going backwards for a lot of the night. He’s just so slippery though he had a couple good runs, you just kind of hold your breath when he’s outside the pocket.
“Obviously (DeAndre Hopkins) being a little limited was good for us, but I thought (cornerback Eric) Stokes played a really nice game and Rasul played a pretty nice game. On the back end, we tackled well and we got enough pressure to kind of get him off the spot. Then we came up with some big, big turnovers.”
This has to go down as one of the most impressive of LaFleur’s regular-season wins, because of the quality of opponent, the shorthanded roster he was working with and playing on a short week on the road.
Because of injury and COVID-19, the Packers were without their top three receivers (Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard), and in the third quarter they lost their best tight end (Robert Tonyan) to a knee injury.
On defense, they were without Smith and Alexander, who play prime positions, plus Barry, who had to do all his game-planning with coaches and players this week via Zoom.
Now, just as it’s a fool’s errand to go overboard with one horrendous loss like the Packers in the opener, it’s the same to put too much into any regular-season win in October. There will be ebbs and flows in the long season, and if Tonyan’s injury is serious, as it appeared to be — “I’m sick for Bobby,” was all LaFleur would say about the injury’s severity — then this win came at a cost.
Still, this is about as big as it gets at this point of the season, considering the circumstances and quality of opponent. With the Packers’ defense handling Murray as well as it did, and a tough, physical running game carrying the offense — Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon combined for 137 yards rushing, and Jones put up another 51 on swing passes and screens — this also was a sign the Packers are a mature team that has as good a chance as anybody in the NFC.
“A different feeling to the team than even the last couple years,” Rodgers said. “I'm not sure how it's gonna finish up, but I like the energy that we have in the locker room.”
The Packers’ reward after this tough, short week is a welcome mini-bye this weekend. They earned the R&R, though really the season’s just getting started.