GREEN BAY – From the trade of Rasul Douglas to injuries sustained during the lead-up to Sunday's game with the Los Angeles Rams, the Packers' defense was thrown a fair number of curveballs this week.
Yet, the unit pulled together to fashion its best performance of the season to propel Green Bay to a 20-3 victory over the Rams in front of 77,409 at Lambeau Field.
The matchup was a war of attrition between the Packers' defense and LA's offense. Already without top running back Kyren Williams (ankle), the Rams were without starting quarterback Matthew Stafford (right thumb) and right tackle Rob Havenstein (calf).
After trading Douglas to Buffalo on Tuesday, the Packers found themselves without safety Rudy Ford (calf) and linebacker Quay Walker (groin) after both starters were added to the injury report during the practice week.
The two rookies combined for five of Green Bay's 10 passes defensed, including Johnson Jr.'s crucial interception of Rams backup quarterback Brett Rypien in the fourth quarter off a pass All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander batted into the air.
The Packers converted the takeaway into a 34-yard Anders Carlson field goal that came in the middle of a run of 13 unanswered points to seal Green Bay's third win of the season.
"Thirty-six and 37, man," said linebacker Rashan Gary, mentioning the jersey numbers of Johnson Jr. and Valentine. "Understanding the trade with Rasul and everything that meant to this team – for them to come up this week and understand our defensive standard and understand there's pressure on this week …it was great for this defense."
Valentine made three spot starts earlier this season but knew more attention would be directed his way after Douglas' trade to Buffalo. The 21-year-old cornerback responded with three breakups, including a third-and-9 pass intended for Tutu Atwell to force a three-and-out in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, Johnson Jr. and fourth-year veteran Jonathan Owens held down the back end. Owens, playing for an injured Darnell Savage, actually recorded Green Bay's first takeaway in the second quarter when he was credited with a strip sack of Rypien that linebacker De'Vondre Campbell recovered at the LA 41.
The Packers converted that turnover into their first scoring drive of the game, a seven-play, 41-yard series that ended in a 3-yard Aaron Jones touchdown run seconds into the second quarter.
"Just went in and tried to make a play, tried to reach for the ball," Owens said. "I actually didn't know that it was a fumble; I thought he tried to throw it, but we looked at the replay and it showed I did (force a fumble). It was a great feeling. We scored seven points after that so it's playing complementary football."
If Owens' forced fumble got the defense going, then Johnson Jr. getting his first NFL interception in his first NFL start helped seal the victory.
The INT came on the second Rypien pass Alexander broke up that was intended for Cooper Kupp, whom he helped limit to just 48 yards.
The play also generated a few laughs on the sideline after Johnson Jr. came close to grabbing a couple picks in practice but wasn't fully able to secure them. With Alexander lending a hand, Johnson Jr. got the job done on gameday.
"I saw the quarterback's eyes and saw where he was going, so I broke that way," said Johnson Jr., who's the first Packers player to register an INT in his first NFL start since CB Casey Hayward on Oct. 21, 2012, at the St. Louis Rams. "As I'm running that way, I see the corner route is coming and I'm going to close, and Ja flies out of the air, tips it up. I'm like, 'Oh, there it is. It's mine.'"
Check out photos from the Week 9 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams at Lambeau Field on Nov. 5, 2023.
If the defense's job wasn't difficult enough going into the game, the Packers also lost two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kenny Clark to a shoulder injury late in the first quarter.
Even without Clark, Green Bay still held LA's run game to just 68 yards on 26 carries (2.6 yards per carry) and nothing longer than an 8-yard Rypien scramble in the second quarter.
Rookies Karl Brooks and Colby Wooden stepped up when Clark exited. According to TruMedia, Brooks was the first Packers rookie defensive lineman to register two passes defensed in a game since at least 2000, while Wooden's stop of Royce Freeman for no gain on fourth-and-2 preserved a 10-3 lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
"No drop-off. We know that's big dog (Clark), but there's no drop-off," Wooden said. "He told us that. J-Mo (defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery) told us that. We know what the standard is – the standard is the standard regardless of whether Kenny is out there."
The Packers' defense was put in a couple tough spots in the third quarter with the Rams starting at their 42 and then the Green Bay 36 after back-to-back fumbles. Yet, LA was unable to add any points on either possession.
Owens' forced fumble was Green Bay's only sack, but the Packers racked up five tackles for loss. The biggest may have been McDuffie dropping Freeman for a loss of five on first-and-10 from the Green Bay 29. The Rams wound up punting.
LA finished with just 187 total yards and 10 first downs for the game, with Rypien completing just 13 of 28 passes for 130 yards and Johnson Jr.'s INT (45.2 passer rating).
"This is a game a defense could be so happy with – close to zero points," Alexander said. "I think we just went back to getting back to our standard, our standard of football and with Rasul gone, it's like a wake-up call and everybody, as you could see, was locked in and ready to play today."