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Packers' defense coming together behind healthier secondary

Green Bay's cornerbacks settling in for stretch run


GREEN BAY — Each week, the film sessions grew more aggravating. Across the league, cutups showed overthrown and deflected passes falling into the waiting arms of defensive players.

In Green Bay, the Packers' cornerbacks could only shake their heads.

"Sometimes you're watching film and you say, 'Man, those teams are getting the ball to bounce their way,'" cornerback Quinten Rollins said. "Why aren't we getting that?"

On Sunday afternoon, they finally did. The Packers' secondary snagged five interceptions off Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who had never thrown more than three in a regular-season contest.

The five picks the secondary generated matched the unit's previous total for the season and helped propel the Packers from a minus-6 turnover differential to plus-1 after a late fumble recovery sealed the 38-10 victory.

For weeks, defensive coordinator Dom Capers expressed optimism that the turnovers were coming. As it turned out, they all came flooding in during the same 60-minute interval.

"We've talked about turnovers all year that we haven't been creating the turnovers," said Capers on Monday. "This was one of those games that they all came in one game."

To be fair, Green Bay isn't alone when it comes to looking for more takeaways. Interceptions, as a whole, have been down league-wide this season with an average of 25.3 per week compared to 27.3 in 2015.

The challenge for the Packers' coaches was making sure the secondary didn't take unnecessary chances to make them happen. Every movement is a calculated risk on the back end. It's critical for cornerbacks and safeties not to forsake their fundamentals chasing the big play.

The secondary's trust in the system paid off against Seattle. While many factors played into the breakout, it began with the cornerback position settling in after a trying start to the year.

With Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Shields already out with a concussion he sustained in the opener in Jacksonville, the Packers then lost last year's top draft picks, Damarious Randall and Rollins, for a combined nine games due to groin injuries.

A week after Rollins returned against Indianapolis, the Packers then lost third-year veteran Demetri Goodson to a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee.

Randall's return has coincided with the defense holding the opposition to an average of 12 points and 204.3 passing yards over the Packers' last three victories. Comparatively, Green Bay averaged 38.3 points allowed and 300 passing yards during its four-game skid.

Randall and Rollins combined for 12 tackles, four passes defensed and three interceptions Sunday with each contributing a takeaway inside the red zone to end potential scoring drives.

"It's devastating for the offense to turn the ball over period, but then you turn the ball over as you're going in to score," Randall said. "That just speaks volumes to our guys' character, grit and toughness to keep on fighting through any type of adversity."

Capers has seen both players get more comfortable since the calendar hit December. Rollins has strung together perhaps his best three performances of the year, while Randall enjoyed the first two-interception day of his career at Wilson's expense.

The presence of Randall, Rollins and second-year cornerback LaDarius Gunter – who stepped into a starting role after Shields' injury – allowed Capers to use veteran safety Morgan Burnett in an expanded role against the Seahawks.

Burnett played roughly three-quarters of his snaps next to Joe Thomas in a linebacker-like position that Capers refers to as the "whip."

The Packers toyed around with the idea of using Burnett in the box more during training camp, but they've used the package sparingly due to the secondary needing Burnett to play slot in the dime package with all the injuries at cornerback.

With starting linebacker Jake Ryan limited to eight snaps due to an ankle injury, Burnett and Thomas were tasked with containing Wilson's scrambling ability and tight end Jimmy Graham.

Wilson finished with only 19 rushing yards, while Graham was held to only one catch for 16 yards on four targets. Burnett recorded the first pick of the day in coverage on Graham and earned a game ball for his performance.

"You see that around the league, a few guys who are capable of playing within the box and playing really as an inside linebacker," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "We've had that in as a changeup, but the fact (Burnett) can come in there and there's no drop-off from a guy who isn't an inside linebacker, I think that speaks volumes to what he brings to this defense and how valuable he is."

The six total takeaways lifted the Packers from 18th to seventh in interceptions with 13 on the season. More important than any statistical rankings, however, the defense allowed only two plays or more than 20 yards against Seattle.

Capers reiterated on Monday that if the defense doesn't give up big plays, it will be difficult to score against. With three weeks left in the regular season, the Packers hope to continue that trend.

"We believe we're a playoff team," Burnett said. "We never lost our confidence in that. That's a great thing about this team when we went through our rough patch, we still kept our confidence."

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