Butler: Packers Must Continue To Step Up

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Against the San Francisco 49ers, Antuan Edwards had a game any safety would envy.

He had an interception that essentially sealed the Green Bay Packers' 20-10 win. He had a LeRoy Butler-type sack of the quarterback. And he had one of the best hits that I've ever seen on wide receiver Terrell Owens.

Edwards was a presence, a physical force, in a situation where the Packers lost significant starters on their defense in Nick Barnett (ankle) and Darren Sharper (ribs).

And I lead off by mentioning Edwards, because if the Packers continue to rise to the occasion the way he did over the weekend, they're going to be a tough team to contend with not only in the regular season, but in the post-season.

Even though the Packers had an impressive day running the football and made some big plays in the passing game for two touchdowns, you have to give Sunday's win to the defense.

Twice, interceptions by the 49ers gave them field position at the 22-yard line or closer. But the defense held strong and allowed no points in two red zone stands.

Later on, Brett Favre's third interception did spark a San Francisco scoring drive, but consider this: the last time Favre threw three interceptions in a Packers win was Sept. 17, 2000.

That statistic demonstrates the superb play of the Packers defense. Their effort was remarkable, and it seems like it's all coming together.

Actually, there have been flashes of this for the past few weeks, but other than a 24-yard touchdown pass to Owens, it was a complete shutdown of the Niners from start to finish over the weekend.

On that touchdown to Owens, cornerback Al Harris thought he had help deep from safety Marques Anderson, who was filling in for Sharper.

Owens made a double move and broke free, and for that you have to credit the receiver. But the miscommunication between Harris and Anderson shows just how fine the line is between success and failure in this league.

Thankfully the touchdown didn't hurt the Packers, and if you take away that one play, the Packers held arguably the best receiver in the game to four catches and 25 yards.

Now that's an outstanding effort!

Give praise to linebacker Torrance Marshall, who came off the bench to replace Barnett. The Packers have to hope that Barnett won't be out for any extended period, but Marshall has all the physical tools to make plays in his absence.

He's big, strong and fast, but he has big shoes to fill, and it's going to be a challenge to get into the flow of playing again after so much time on the sidelines.

But if fellow linebackers Na'il Diggs and Hannibal Navies maintain their high level of performance, Marshall should have some help.

Meanwhile, the Packers defensive line is looking the best it has all season, which makes a linebacker's job a bit easier.

Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has taken his game to another level and mid-season pickups Grady Jackson and Larry Smith have really sparked a turnaround for the entire defensive unit.

That group has a lot of potential, and they're starting to realize it.

At this point you can look over the Packers entire defense and see potential playmakers at each position. That's the great part about coordinator Ed Donatell's scheme, that there can be a different hero every game.

Sunday, Donatell did a great job of mixing things up to keep players involved. When the Packers extended their lead, the defense never let up. Instead, they stuck with the same aggressive style that worked for them early on in those red-zone stands.

That shows a lot of confidence by Donatell in his players and the Packers can feed off of that.

Getting back to Edwards' interception, if you saw the wide angle of that play then you know how beautiful it was when he broke on the football. It was textbook technique, but great instinct by Edwards. And it's a play that can only be made by a guy playing with confidence.

That game proves that Edwards is ready to take his game to another level, and I'm proud of him.

I'm equally proud of Robert Ferguson, who has to be one of the best special teams players in football.

I'm not talking about his returns either, although that 31-yarder was nice. I'm talking about his outstanding speed down the field and his tackling ability with the coverage units.

Ferguson is a monster out there. And when you consider that he and fullback William Henderson are starters, you have to respect the way they go all-out on special teams. You wouldn't get that from a lot of players in this league.

Also on special teams, kicker Ryan Longwell continues to show just how much he means to the Packers. He came up just short on that 49-yard attempt in rainy, wet conditions, but he made clutch 38- and 37-yarders. And if you want to know how tough it is to kick in Lambeau Field in winter, just ask Todd Peterson, who couldn't convert for the 49ers from 24 yards away.

Offensively, if running back Ahman Green isn't among the first few names considered for the NFL MVP right now, it's a crime. Nobody can stop this guy.

Nobody can stop the offensive line either, and I wish they could be on the Pro Bowl ballot as a group.

It doesn't matter if it's Green, Najeh Davenport or Tony Fisher in the backfield, that running game for the Packers is producing like never before.

The tackles are fantastic, the guards are the best in the game, and no center is faster than Mike Flanagan.

Keep in mind that teams are expecting the run now, doing everything they can to stop it and still the Packers are leading the NFL in that category.

At this point it's hard to imagine anyone slowing down the Packers ground game. And until they do, the Packers should just keep going to it: Here it is, stop it if you can!

That three-tight end set is outstanding for the running game, and fullback Nick Luchey was hurting guys out there with some of his lead blocks. He looked like man amongst boys.

But the running game didn't do all the damage Sunday.

Broken thumb and all, Brett Favre threw a touchdown pass in his 20th consecutive game. Two touchdown passes, actually.

The first, to Javon Walker, made the 49ers respect the deep threat, and that play will be on the minds of the Detroit Lions this Thursday. The second was a rocket to Ferguson, who did an unbelievable job making the catch, tip-toeing down the line and reaching the ball over the pylon for the score (His Lambeau Leap was equally fantastic!).

I know you guys watch plays like that and wonder why the Packers don't pass the football more often. And even though Favre had three interceptions Sunday, I think you will see them air it out in weeks to come.

But against the 49ers it just wasn't the right time. And a few times they tried to throw the ball, it backfired.

Favre needs to make sure that he stays patient in the pocket, goes through his progressions and then throws the ball away if there's nothing there. He had only five incomplete passes in the game, but three were picks.

The good news is that with the defense coming around and the running game going, the Packers have the perfect makeup to take them deep into the playoffs.

But they aren't there yet.

They've started a small winning streak, but they have to keep it going against Detroit. They have to prove that they can continue to be unstoppable.

And most of the time this season, the only ones that have stopped the Packers have been themselves.

*LeRoy Butler played 12 seasons for the Green Bay Packers, helping them to two Super Bowls and earning NFL All-Decade Honors for the 1990s, before retiring in July 2002. This season Butler is providing exclusive analysis to Packers.com with a breakdown of the upcoming game on Saturdays and a column and Q&A session on Tuesdays.

Butler's autobiography, 'The LeRoy Butler Story ... From Wheelchair to the Lambeau Leap,' is available on his website, leroybutler36.com.*

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