NFC North: Ravens-Packers 120709

A symbolic night in Green Bay

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
2:43
AM ET
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
The Green Bay defense swarmed to the ball all night, limiting Baltimore to just 185 yards, while forcing four turnovers. "This game was a proving ground for us," linebacker Nick Barnett said.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Nick Collins shook his head. A smile melded into a smirk of exasperation.

“What did they have tonight?” Collins said. “What was it, 190 yards total? You can’t say much more after that. The defense was phenomenal.”

Indeed, Nick. Indeed.

Back in geometry class, we called it “Q.E.D.” -- a Latin acronym meaning “that which was to be demonstrated.” Yes, Collins and his Green Bay teammates set out Monday night to demonstrate that they have built an elite-caliber defense. A few knuckleheads considered that topic up for debate, but I think it’s safe to say we have a winner if there ever was an argument.

The Packers forced four turnovers, limited Baltimore to 185 total yards -- five less than Collins’ guess -- and reclaimed the NFL’s No. 1 overall ranking in a 27-14 victory at Lambeau Field.

I don’t get out of the Black and Blue much, and so I can’t instantly analyze the state of NFL defenses. But there’s no doubt in my mind the Packers turned a major corner Monday night by overshadowing a team long known for its defensive intensity.

“We’re playing with a lot of confidence,” linebacker Nick Barnett said. “It’s not false confidence. This game was a proving ground for us. All we heard about was the Ravens' defense and Ray Lewis and all those guys. We wanted to go out and show we’re a good defense as well.”

If I recall, we’ve noted Minnesota’s offensive transformation once or twice on this blog. Tonight, I’ll say the Packers’ defensive transition has been no less impressive and every bit as significant. Green Bay has shed its passive reputation and embraced coordinator Dom Capers’ new demands for aggressiveness, all while absorbing his complex 3-4 scheme.

Some people will always identify the Packers with their dynamic passing attack. But their defense has caught up and put the team in excellent position for a wild-card playoff berth.

“It starts with our defense,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “That’s the face of our football team. That’s the way we want to be identified….”

In the NFL, you can’t assign yourself an identity. It’s assigned by others. But ask yourself this question: What was more responsible for the Packers’ victory Monday night? Other than a briefly wild stretch during the third quarter, in which the Ravens converted two turnovers into touchdowns to pull within 17-14, I thought the answer was clearly the defense.

Capers has employed every variation of every front you can imagine this season, but against the Ravens his game plan was as simple as it has been all year. The Packers opened with an extra man in the box to keep tailback Ray Rice in check, but then played a bigger proportion of base defense than normal.

The Packers won a strength-against-strength battle with one of the NFL’s more explosive offenses going away. They held the Ravens to 66 rushing yards Monday night, the ninth time in 10 games an opponent has netted less than 100 rushing yards.

Meanwhile, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information, the Packers used standard pressure (four pass-rushers) on 27 of quarterback Joe Flacco’s 36 passes. Despite the minimal blitzing, Green Bay sacked Flacco three times, intercepted him on three other occasions and held him without a completion that traveled longer than 15 yards in the air for the first time all season.

This all came with three rookies -- defensive tackle B.J. Raji, linebacker Clay Matthews and linebacker Brad Jones -- seeing significant playing time. Raji tackled tailback Willis McGahee for a 3-yard loss in the second quarter. Matthews finished with six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. Jones had a sack among his four tackles.

As he stood outside the Packers' locker room, Capers made no attempt to contain the excitement his group is generating.

“I like the direction we’re headed,” he said. “I’ve always believed that the month of December is where teams start to separate. It goes one or two ways. It becomes obvious which way a team is heading. And I like where we’re heading.”

That became obvious in the fourth quarter Monday night, when the Ravens had a first-and-goal at the Packers’ 1-yard line with 9:46 remaining. Cornerback Charles Woodson slashed through the line to drop McGahee for a 2-yard loss on first down. Cornerback Tramon Williams stepped in front of receiver Demetrius Williams to intercept Flacco on second down.

And when the Ravens regained possession two minutes later, linebacker A.J. Hawk sealed the game by racing 25 yards downfield to intercept Flacco on a deep seam pass.

The play also ensured the Packers would overtake the New York Jets for the NFL’s top overall defensive ranking, based on total yards allowed. There are some flaws to basing rankings on total yards, but there’s no doubt the Packers are taking pride in the accomplishment.

“It’s the biggest goal for our defense,” Barnett said. “Obviously, we want to win games, but our goal when we started was to be the No. 1 defense. … I don’t want to say we’re the Steel Curtain of back in the day or anything like that. But hopefully, we can prove that we’re one of the best defenses out there.”

Q.E.D.

Rapid Reaction: Packers 27, Ravens 14

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
12:03
AM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The bottom line of a wild night at Lambeau Field is this: Green Bay remains on course for a wild-card playoff spot.

Monday night’s 27-14 victory lifted their record to 8-4, leaving them tied with Philadelphia for the best record among non-division leading NFC teams. If the season ended now, the Packers would be the conference’s No. 6 seed.

They defeated the Ravens mostly because their defense withstood Baltimore’s third-quarter rally. In what was pretty much a coming-out party for Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense, the Ravens finished with 185 total yards while committing four turnovers in a game marred by an incredible number of penalty flags.

Referee Walt Anderson’s crew dished out 23 penalties for a total of 310 yards lost, tying the second-most combined single-game penalty yardage in NFL history. The Packers absorbed 175 of those yards and finished 10 yards shy of setting a new single-game franchise record.

Those numbers should all come out in the wash, however. The Packers accomplished their primary goal Monday night of keeping pace in the playoff race. More to come in a few hours.

Packers approaching penalty record

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
11:46
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- In case you’re in to such trivia, Green Bay’s all-time record for most penalty yards in a game is 184 yards. The mark was against the Boston Yanks on Oct. 21, 1945.

As I type these words, the Packers have 175 penalty yards in a game that begs for multiple editions of Dirty Laundry. We’ll keep you updated as the Packers attempt to run out the clock here. Back-to-back interceptions of Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco seem to have put this game out of reach.

Finley shines on Monday nights

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
11:33
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Did I mention that Jermichael Finley likes "Monday Night Football"?

Green Bay’s tight end has put together the first multi-touchdown game of his career. The second score, a 19-yard catch here in the fourth quarter, re-established the Packers’ 10-point lead. Overall, Finley has seven receptions for 79 yards and two scores.

On Oct. 5 at Minnesota, also a Monday night game, Finley caught six passes for 128 yards and a score.

17 penalties through three quarters

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
11:19
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- I wanted to bring up some numbers from this tightly-officiated game.

Through the third quarter, here are the penalty totals:

Baltimore: eight for 110 yards
Green Bay: nine for 143 yards

That is all.

Whew!

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
11:09
PM ET
This game just got a lot more interesting. (Translation: DON'T EVER THINK ABOUT TURNING OFF ESPN's COVERAGE OF "MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL"!)

Minutes ago, Green Bay was driving for a score that would have given them at least a 20-point lead. Now the Packers are clinging to a 17-14 lead after the Ravens capitalized on consecutive turnovers.

A fumble by Donald Driver halted the Packers' scoring drive, leading to an 11-play drive that culminated in Kelley Washington's 12-yard touchdown reception. A pass went off Driver's leg on the Packers' next offensive play, leading to an interception that set up Willis McGahee's 1-yard touchdown run.

Things have moved so fast I've re-written this post five times before getting a chance to post it. Hang on folks. This should be fun. Will the Packers totally self-destruct or can they hang on?

Beware of contact in passing game

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
10:45
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Apparently, if you’re a defensive player Monday night, you can’t so much as touch a receiver. Referee Walt Anderson’s crew is calling an extraordinarily tight game.

By my count, we’ve had five pass interference penalties as of the midpoint of the third quarter. Four have gone against Baltimore. The most recent, called on Ravens safety Dawan Landry as he ran downfield with receiver Donald Driver, looked particularly bereft of contact.

But it’s the responsibility of defensive players to adjust to the way a game is called, and that’s one of many things the Packers have done better this evening.

Halftime: Packers 17, Ravens 0

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
10:25
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Some halftime thoughts from Lambeau Field, where Green Bay has a commanding lead:

    [+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesAaron Rodgers had two first-half touchdown passes.
  • You couldn’t ask for much more from the Packers' defense. On a national stage, they’ve shut down a pretty potent offense. The Ravens have 72 total yards and six first downs. They’ve committed two turnovers and haven’t threatened to score after linebacker Clay Matthews forced tailback Ray Rice to fumble in the red zone on their opening possession. This is how an elite defense plays in December.
  • Keep in mind the Packers are using three defensive rookies extensively, and all of them have made significant contributions. Matthews has three tackles, along with a sack and the forced fumble. Defensive lineman B.J. Raji has two tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage, while linebacker Brad Jones has three tackles.
  • Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has completed 16 of 24 passes, including two for touchdowns. But if you ask me, he looks hampered by the rib injury he was reported to have last week. We noted he grimaced in obvious pain after throwing an inaccurate deep pass that was ultimately intercepted. He’s also taken a while to get up after several post-throw hits. I don’t think it’s a serious situation, but just something to monitor.
  • Tight end Jermichael Finley is becoming a fan of "Monday Night Football." He has five receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown. In an Oct. 5 Monday night game at Minnesota, Finley had six receptions for 128 yards and a score.
  • It might be too late, but if I were the Ravens, I’d work harder to get the ball to Rice. The NFL’s leading open-field runner, based on yards after the catch, Rice has only two receptions.

Formation leads to favorable matchup

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
9:55
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- I can’t say I’ve seen that formation in … forever.

Green Bay just scored its first touchdown of the game on a 2-yard pass to tight end Jermichael Finley, who began the play lined up as a tailback behind “fullback” Brandon Jackson. Finley went into motion, lined up as an outside receiver, and hauled in Aaron Rodgers’ pass.

The formation might have been designed to get Finley a favorable matchup. Baltimore safety Tom Zbikowski, who started in place of the injured Ed Reed, picked up Finley and didn’t have much chance to outfight him for the ball.

The score gave Green Bay a 10-0 lead with 4:35 remaining in the half.

Packers defense answers bell

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
9:45
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- We opened our discussion of this game by asking whether Green Bay truly had an elite-caliber defense. So far Monday night, the answer is a resounding yes.

The Packers have held Baltimore to 54 total yards over its first four possessions. They’ve forced two turnovers, unofficially stopped three running plays behind the line of scrimmage, and sacked quarterback Joe Flacco once.

We have a long way to go, but to this point the Packers defense has answered the bell.

Replay reversal goes for naught

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
9:13
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy just won his fifth challenge in 10 attempts this season, reversing a play originally ruled a fumble by Packers tailback Ryan Grant. McCarthy’s challenge allowed the Packers to keep possession of the ball at their 17-yard line.

When I first saw the replay, I thought Grant clearly had possession of the ball when his knee touched the ground. After a few more looks, I started thinking the ball was on its way out at that point.

It all went for naught, however, as Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw his sixth interception of the season two snaps later. So it goes with a live blog.

Packers move through the air

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
8:58
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Green Bay just moved the ball into position for a 28-yard Mason Crosby field goal, using eight passes and three runs on its opening drive. I wonder if that was the Packers’ original script, or if they altered it when Baltimore surprisingly deactivated safety Ed Reed.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers wasn’t sacked but faced some pressure in completing six of those eight passes. Tailback Ryan Grant gained four yards on his three carries.

There has been an assumption that the Packers would rely more on their running game as cold-weather games approached, but they showed little interest in doing so on their initial drive.

Your weather update

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
8:30
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Because no one can watch this game without knowing the pregame weather conditions, I can report the following:
  • It’s 21 degrees at Lambeau Field as kickoff approaches.
  • The windchill is 15.
  • Winds out of the west at 4 miles per hour.
  • The sky is dark.

While I slept ...

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
7:59
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Reason No. 6,363 why I’ll never win a Pulitzer Prize: I looked across the aisle on the flight over Monday morning and saw Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. It wasn’t hard to recognize him.

Harbaugh told a couple of guys sitting near us that he was heading to Green Bay to support his brother, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, in Monday night’s game against the Packers.

Interesting, I thought. Then I fell asleep.

A few hours later, the New York Times reported Harbaugh either has or will interview for the head-coaching job at Notre Dame, located a few hours away from here. (Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby strongly denied the report.) I could have settled the whole controversy by asking Harbaugh to explain himself. Oh well. I’ll just go back to adding up numbers wrong on the NFC North blog. Carry on.

Packers won't face Ed Reed

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
7:23
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Green Bay has caught its first break of the evening: Baltimore safety Ed Reed (hip) was among eight players deactivated before the game. Reed had returned to practice Saturday, but he’ll be replaced in the starting lineup by second-year player Tom Zbikowski.

The Ravens were already playing without linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has been sidelined by a knee injury. Reed hasn’t missed a game since 2005 and is a cornerstone of the Ravens’ risk-taking defense. Without question, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will benefit from his absence.

There were no surprises among the Packers’ eight inactive players, a list that included fullback Quinn Johnson.

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