GREEN BAY – The first month of the 2021 NFL season has seen the Packers' defense both start fast and finish strong.
But on Sunday, in front of 78,281 at Lambeau Field, Green Bay's defensive unit played its most balanced game of the young season in a 27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Packers did it through an assortment of big plays (two takeaways), key stops (the Steelers went 4-for-11 on third and 0-for-2 fourth down) and resiliency after losing All-Pro Jaire Alexander to a shoulder injury in the third quarter.
Since a 38-3 letdown against New Orleans in the opener, the Packers have made steady strides defensively over the past month despite the absence of Pro Bowl pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith and cornerback Kevin King.
That setback against the Saints taught Green Bay an important lesson.
"Week 1 wasn't us. We knew we were going to come back and get right," defensive lineman Kingsley Keke said. "Sometimes, a little loss like that can get us back to working, working on things that we need to fix as a defense."
After better outings against Detroit and San Francisco, Green Bay knew what it was up against versus the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger. Behind its future Hall of Fame quarterback, Pittsburgh got off to a fast start with an eight-play, 75-yard series on its opening offensive possession, which ended with a 45-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson.
Green Bay pretty much shut the door on big plays after that, allowing just one gain of 20 or more yards for the rest of the game. After the Packers forced a three-and-out on the Steelers' second drive, Keke bulled his way through Pittsburgh's offensive line on third down and swiped Roethlisberger's arm to force a fumble.
Fellow defensive lineman Kenny Clark pounced on the ball to give the Packers' offense possession at the Pittsburgh 23. Four plays later, quarterback Aaron Rodgers connected with Randall Cobb on a 23-yard touchdown that gave Green Bay its first lead of the game at 14-7.
"It was huge being able to get a forced fumble for my team," said Keke, who now has five sacks over the past two seasons. "It's setting the standard for this defense, just making plays all-around, being active and being a disruptive force. I went straight power, trying to add more power moves into my game, into my rushes so that way it can set up everything else."
The Packers' offense went on a run from there, scoring on five straight possessions to take a 27-10 lead near the end of the third quarter. Looking to keep pace, the Steelers chose to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the Green Bay 32.
Roethlisberger fired an underneath pass to rookie running back Najee Harris in the flat, which Alexander crashed hard on. That impact allowed Green Bay to stop Harris for 1-yard loss, but also resulted in Alexander sustaining a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the game.
"Just next man up," said linebacker Rashan Gary of how the team reacted to Alexander's departure. "It sucks at the moment but we're in the middle of the game and we can't harp on that.
"It's just that next-man-up mentality and trying to get this win for Ja' because if he was out there then he'd be wanting the same."
Lambeau Field hosted a Week 4 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.
The Packers stopped the Steelers on the first series after Alexander exited. Starting safety Darnell Savage applied heavy pressure on Pressley Harvin's punt, which traveled just 20 yards.
The second of the two turnovers on downs Green Bay forced was its most dominant series of the game. It started with Gary plowing through left tackle Dan Moore to drop Roethlisberger for a 6-yard loss on first down.
The Steelers were unable to overcome the negative yardage and on fourth-and-5, inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell tackled JuJu Smith-Schuster 3 yards shy of the first down.
The Steelers mounted one last scoring drive late in the fourth quarter but saw their hopes of a comeback dashed when rookie first-round pick Eric Stokes picked off Roethlisberger for his first career interception to seal the win.
The Packers came in knowing they needed to stop the run and push the Steelers' front to prohibit Roethlisberger from stepping up in the pocket. All told, Green Bay limited Harris to just 62 rushing yards and hit Roethlisberger five times.
"Today was a huge step forward for our defense," Keke said. "We just have to keep moving forward, stay locked in and stay the course."