Defense Displaying Killer Instinct


S Atari Bigby intercepts a pass late in the fourth quarter to seal the Packers' season-opening 24-19 victory over the Vikings on Sept. 8.

If there's one truly promising trend aside from new starter Aaron Rodgers' strong play at quarterback in the season's first two games, it's been the defense's ability to close the deal.

And not just with a key stop, but with an interception that thwarts the opponent's ability to even generate any momentum for a late comeback drive.

That's how the Packers have sealed their first two wins of 2008, with turnovers at the most vital moments.

In the season opener against Minnesota, the Vikings trailed 24-19 and had the ball on their own 31-yard line with 1:51 left. Three snaps and just one first down later, safety Atari Bigby was right where he needed to be to pick off Tarvaris Jackson's overthrow, ending the game with 54 seconds left.

Then last Sunday in Detroit, the Packers had just re-taken the lead on a field goal, leaving Detroit with 5:17 on the clock and a 27-25 deficit. On the very first play, cornerback Charles Woodson was in perfect position to defend an attempted back-shoulder throw to Calvin Johnson and intercepted Jon Kitna's pass, setting up an offensive touchdown that restored a two-score lead.

"That's what you need," secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer said. "Somebody has to make a play. Either they're going to make a play or you're going to make a play. (Sunday) late in the game, and as it was in the Minnesota game, they're in four-down territory from the moment they get the ball back, and you have to find a way to get the stop."

Getting that stop with a turnover, and avoiding all the high drama of a fourth-down play with the game on the line, is a result of every player on the defense focusing on his job every snap of the possession, Schottenheimer said, and not waiting for the so-called make-or-break moment.

It also stems from every player on defense wanting to be in that position, and not dreading that the game is on their shoulders.

"That's a product of the pass rush, the coverage, the communication, it's a product of all those things," said Schottenheimer, a veteran of 21 years as an NFL coach. "It's great when it works out that way.

"We're getting them at opportune times, but as a player on a team that's a good football team, you relish those times and look for those opportunities. You don't want to come out there and say, 'Oh man, what's going to happen here, I'm worried.' No. It's, 'Let's go. Let's see what you've got, and see what we've got for you.'"

"Your football team grows when you can start playing with confidence."

That confidence at crunch time started to develop last year, when the Packers' defense closed out three of the season's first seven wins with late-game interceptions.

--In Week 3 vs. San Diego, the Packers had just taken a 24-21 lead on a Greg Jennings touchdown with 2:03 left. On the fourth snap of the Chargers' ensuing possession, linebacker Nick Barnett stepped in front of a pass intended for running back LaDainian Tomlinson, picked it off and returned it 38 yards to the San Diego 2, setting up the clinching TD.

--The following week, at Minnesota, the Vikings had rallied to within 23-16 when Green Bay fumbled the ball back to them near midfield with 1:40 left. Just 34 seconds later, Bigby made a diving interception of a deflected pass to squelch a potential miracle comeback.

--And in Week 9 at Kansas City, in a back-and-forth contest, the Packers were clinging to a 26-22 lead when the Chiefs took over on their own 34 with 1:35 to go. On third-and-short, Woodson read Damon Huard's underneath throw to running back Priest Holmes, intercepted it, and ran it back 46 yards for a TD to put the game away.

At that time, the only letdown by the defense in a similar situation was in Week 5, when Chicago broke a 20-all tie at Lambeau Field with a 34-yard TD pass to tight end Desmond Clark with 2:05 left to hand the Packers their first loss of the season.

{sportsad300}But as it turned out, that was the team's only defeat until late November. And after the Kansas City game, none of the Packers' remaining six regular-season victories required a defensive stand in the latter stages with the team leading by only one score.

But it's certainly encouraging to see the defense's killer instinct intact early on in 2008.

"That's what you have to do when you're in these type of dogfights," Woodson said.

After the first interception last Sunday, the defense poured it on with two more interceptions, both returned for scores, by Woodson and safety Nick Collins. It amounted to overkill in the final analysis, but it illustrated another element of confident, crunch-time play.

"Because now everybody wants to get involved and be a part of it," Schottenheimer said. "The pass rushers are trying to sack the quarterback, strip the ball, cause a fumble. The linebackers want to get a pick or strip the ball.

"Everybody is playing with high energy and the key is playing with confidence. The more you do it the better you feel about it."

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