Packers ‘didn’t blink’ as defense preserves another close win

LB Za'Darius Smith, LB Preston Smith and CB Kevin King
LB Za'Darius Smith, LB Preston Smith and CB Kevin King

GREEN BAY – The Packers’ defense did it again.

Backed up against a wall trying to protect a one-score lead for the second game in a row to open 2019, Green Bay’s revamped defense came through over and over down the stretch Sunday to preserve a 21-16 victory over Minnesota in the home opener at Lambeau Field.

With the Vikings on the verge of completely wiping out an early 21-0 deficit, the Packers’ defense came up with no fewer than four stops over the game’s final 20 minutes to allow Green Bay to escape victorious and move to 2-0.

“To the credit of our guys, they stuck together,” Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. “We talk sometimes about facing some adversity, and how do we respond in those tough situations. Our guys, they stuck together. They didn’t blink and it was a great team win.”

The most dramatic of the four clutch stops came with just over five minutes left, after the Vikings had driven 52 yards and had first-and-goal on the 8. Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins started to scramble and tried to heave a pass high to the back corner of the end zone for receiver Stefon Diggs.

Packers cornerback Kevin King leaped to pick it off, giving Green Bay’s defense two fourth-quarter, end-zone picks to highlight the season’s first two games.

“We put them in a couple tough spots the last two weeks,” Packers QB Aaron Rodgers said. “When we’ve been at our best over the years on defense, we’ve been a very opportunistic turnover-machine type of defense, and that’s shaping up for sure that way with those guys.”

An early turnover, as a Kenny Clark sack forced a fumble that Dean Lowry recovered, was sandwiched between three straight touchdown drives by the Packers’ offense for a 21-0 lead just 44 seconds into the second quarter.

Touchdown passes to Jamaal Williams on a screen pass and to Geronimo Allison on a jump ball, plus an Aaron Jones touchdown run, had the 78,416 Lambeau faithful in a frenzy, enjoying a huge lead.

“It felt crisp, it felt clean, we were getting chunk plays, both in the run game and in the pass game,” LaFleur said. “The operation felt smooth.”

But a combination of missed opportunities by the Packers and big plays by the Vikings slowly but surely turned things around.

Through the second quarter and early stages of the third, the Vikings scored a touchdown on a 75-yard run by Dalvin Cook, kicked a field goal set up by a 61-yard catch-and-run by receiver Chad Beebe – after a TD was wiped out by a replay review that found offensive pass interference on Minnesota – and got within one score on Diggs’ 45-yard TD grab.

In the meantime, in Vikings’ territory, the Packers fumbled inside the 30 and failed on fourth-and-short from the 25 due to a misunderstanding with the officials and miscommunication between LaFleur and Rodgers. They also coughed up a bad shotgun snap near midfield.

All the miscues combined to prevent stretching the lead, and the Vikings got back within striking distance.

“They made some adjustments, and we did as well, but we just didn’t execute,” Rodgers said. “We had some chances. They tightened up.”

Minnesota defenders successfully knocked away several contested passes to keep the Packers from generating another scoring drive, but Green Bay’s defense was equal to every task as well. Cousins finished his day with two interceptions and three turnovers total, going 14-of-32 for 230 yards and a 52.9 passer rating.

After the fourth straight second-half stop, the Packers’ offense took over with 3:14 left and finally did what it needed to. A pair of first downs around the two-minute warning forced the Vikings to use all three of their timeouts, and by the time JK Scott’s final punt went for a touchback, only six seconds remained on the clock.

Jones, with 23 carries for 116 yards, didn’t outrush Cook (20-154) but he gave the Packers a ground game to rely upon. Receiver Davante Adams also got going, with seven catches for 106 yards, with all but 25 of those yards coming in the first quarter.

Some short-yardage failures early and tough third-and-longs later still left a lot to be desired after the explosive start. But just as he did last week in Chicago, Rodgers (22-of-34, 209 yards, two TDs, no INTs, 101.2 rating) couldn’t say enough about how much he believes in his defense.

Asked if he feels the unit is legit, Rodgers was unequivocal.

“I really do,” he said, pointing out all the weapons the Vikings possess on offense. “We held them to 16 points. Obviously what they did in Week 1 … we have to start doing a better job of putting teams away on offense, but we can definitely close out games on defense as you’ve seen the first two weeks.”

Lambeau Field hosted a Week 2 game between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings.

LaFleur likes what he’s seen, too, particularly from a chemistry standpoint. Over two games, one unit has garnered all the headlines while the other has done just enough, and there’s no substitute for doing what’s required on both sides with the game on the line.

“You talk about two grind-it-out games that are going to come down to the end, and our guys continued to stay together,” LaFleur said. “That’s what we keep preaching to them. I think there’s a lot of character in that locker room. I’m really proud of those guys.”

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