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New challenges await Packers' defense as it keeps climbing

Injuries at edge rusher loom over superb shutout performance

Packers safety Adrian Amos secures an interception in Green Bay's 17-0 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Packers safety Adrian Amos secures an interception in Green Bay's 17-0 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

GREEN BAY – Nothing is getting easier for the Packers' stalwart defense.

At the moment, that statement has very little to do with the fact that Green Bay's next two opponents are a Vikings offense that just scored 27 points on the road, followed by a Rams offense featuring Matthew Stafford-Cooper Kupp-OBJ over Thanksgiving weekend.

Those tasks will be tough enough, but now after surviving through October and early November with a depleted cornerback position, it's edge rusher that's suddenly really hurting.

First Whitney Mercilus (biceps) and then Rashan Gary (elbow) left Sunday's 17-0 victory over Seattle, and while Head Coach Matt LaFleur had no postgame updates, television replays showed painful injuries that don't lend themselves to an immediate return to action.

Time will tell just where things stand, but the Packers finished Sunday's shutout with just Preston Smith and Jonathan Garvin as the only true outside linebackers available.

Oren Burks has played there some and will probably be called upon at least in the short term, but the only other option currently in house is practice-squad member Tipa Galeai.

That's as thin as it gets, especially at such a crucial position.

"That's going to be another challenge we have to take on," LaFleur said. "We're going to have to get back to that grind starting tomorrow."

The Packers are hoping to get Za'Darius Smith (back injury) back at some point, but that's still down the road a bit.

So just as the defense weathered a storm at cornerback that saw Jaire Alexander and Kevin King go down in back-to-back weeks, and then rookie Eric Stokes not make it through warmups last week at Kansas City, the pass rush will have to lean on other players and other ways to get the job done.

The signing of Rasul Douglas helped stem the tide at corner, and his abilities proved pivotal for a position group that now has King and Stokes back, with Alexander still a maybe at some point.

Based on his MO this season, GM Brian Gutekunst will sign another edge rusher if there's one worth bringing in. The Packers also will trust their structure and process that have gotten the defense's arrow to continue pointing up despite all the health setbacks.

"That is the expectation, that's the standard," LaFleur said of the minimal drop-off when key players have been sidelined. He admitted there's some coach-speak ingrained within that, but "nobody really cares at the end of the day how you get it done or who's in there."

That is certainly true. The NFL stops for no one, and ready-made excuses only feed a loser's mentality.

It's difficult to overstate just how well the Packers are playing on defense right now, no matter the personnel.

They came into Sunday allowing 321 yards and 20 points per game, ranking fifth and sixth in the league, respectively. Seattle managed 208 yards and no points, so the season averages are now 310 yards and 18 points per contest.

"We've been good in key moments," safety Adrian Amos said. "We've been closing out. A lot of times when you're up like that (on the scoreboard), you give 'em something cheap at the end. That was good to see we closed it out.

"Anytime you can limit big plays, I think you always have a chance."

Last week, the Chiefs had just two plays better than 14 yards. The Seahawks had just one longer than 18. Also, the Packers have generated multiple turnovers in seven of their last nine contests.

All this after the rockiest of starts for new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, whose group allowed 38 points to New Orleans in a Week 1 blowout. The defense also didn't get a red-zone stop until Week 7, but opponents are just 4-of-11 since then.

Lambeau Field hosted a Week 10 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021.

The best part might be the lack of complacency in anyone's voice about how the defense is playing. Not because they feel they can play better, necessarily.

But because of two reasons. No. 1 – this league can humble anyone in a hurry.

"We know that it's so week to week in this league," LaFleur said. "You can never relax, you can never take a deep breath and feel like you've ever arrived, because as soon as you do that you're going to go out the next week and just get your butt whipped."

Lately, the only whipping the Packers are taking is with the injuries, but that leads to point No. 2 – there's still a long way to go.

"You can't say you're the best in the middle of the season," Amos said. "We gotta say it at the end of the year."

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