The Packers kept digging and digging until finally getting the takeaways that had been eluding the defense prior to Thursday night's matchup with the San Francisco 49ers.
Fittingly, it was the Za'Darius and Preston Smith hitting the gas pedal for the D-Train in a 34-17 victory at Levi's Stadium.
Preston started things in the second quarter when he pressured 49ers backup quarterback Nick Mullens into lobbing a pass into the arms of Raven Greene, resulting in the third-year safety's first NFL interception.
Za'Darius added to the festivities in the third quarter when he beat tackle Justin Skule on the edge for a strip-sack of Mullens in which Smith recovered his own forced fumble.
The Packers scored touchdowns off both takeaways with Preston's setting up a nine-play, 38-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis to give Green Bay a two-score lead it wouldn't look back from.
"That got us fired up," said Za'Darius of Preston's pressure. "We got hyped off of that, because P been talking about rushing for a while, as you guys know. He's been dropping (into coverage) a lot, but for him to get that pressure, man, and come back to the sideline and have a turnover play like that, that was big for us, and that set the tone for us as a defense to go out there and be dominant."
With the Smiths combining for four hits on Mullens, the Packers held the 49ers to only 124 total yards at halftime and only three points through the first three quarters. A week after conceding more than 200 total yards to Dalvin Cook, the Packers limited the 49ers' running game to only 55 yards on 17 carries.
Green Bay came into Thursday night with only four takeaways (two interceptions, two fumbles recovered) through the first seven games of the year – a disappointing start for a defense that tied for seventh in the category (25) a year ago.
The big plays started with the Smith Bros. On Za'Darius' third-quarter sack, his team-best seventh of the season, the Pro Bowl linebacker stepped outside, swiped and landed in the lap of Mullens, knocking the ball out.
"Obviously, getting two turnovers caused by that front (were huge)," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "Preston with the hit on the quarterback that caused the interception by Greene, and then also Z's sack fumble. Both those led to points and just really happy with our overall effort."
The Packers did it despite entering the game without cornerback Kevin King (quadriceps), linebacker Kamal Martin (COVID-19/reserve list) and safety Will Redmond (shoulder).
The job didn't get any easier after it lost star cornerback Jaire Alexander (concussion) and Mike linebacker Krys Barnes (calf) during the first half.
"We've got a bunch of young guys and a bunch of new guys on defense," Za'Darius Smith said. "But for the opportunity for us to come together, man, and keep doing what we're doing on this team, we're going to be a great defensive unit."
MVS bounces back: Aaron Rodgers continued to show faith in Marquez Valdes-Scantling and the third-year receiver rewarded his MVP quarterback with a pair of crucial touchdown catches.
After dropping a third-down pass on a crossing route in the second quarter, Valdes-Scantling beat 49ers safety Marcell Harris with an inside move and hauled in a 52-yard touchdown pass to put the Packers ahead 21-3 at halftime.
"I didn't really see him. I saw the area of the field and expected that he was going to beat the safety to that side," Rodgers said. "I wanted to put a little extra height on it because I knew the safety on the back side was doubling Davante (Adams). I felt good about MVS being there on the deep ball. That's a fun one."
Valdes-Scantling produced the Packers' next score, as well, when he came free in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown on third-and-goal, marking the first multiple-TD game of his NFL career.
Offensive line shuffle: Once again, the Packers had to be flexible on the offensive line. Already playing without starting left tackle David Bakhtiari, Green Bay lost Rick Wagner to a knee injury in the first half.
So the coaches congregated at halftime and formulated a plan. They asked starting left guard Elgton Jenkins whether he wanted to play left or right tackle. When Jenkins chose the left side, Billy Turner – who started the last three games at left tackle in Bakhtiari's place – moved back to his usual starting post at right tackle.
Rookie sixth-round pick Jon Runyan then slid into Jenkins' vacated post at left guard.
"It was a fun conversation to listen to in the locker room," Rodgers said. "I was fully aware of what was going on at halftime and thinking about what we wanted to do protection-wise. Those guys really held up good."
Homecoming game: After starring down the road at San Jose State from 2011-15, Tyler Ervin saw his most extensive offensive playing time of his five-year NFL career.
Ervin had a career-high 12 touches for 72 total yards against the 49ers. He provided a lift for a Packers' backfield playing without Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon, who were both on the COVID-19/reserve list. The Packers also lost running back Dexter Williams to a knee injury at halftime.
Watching Ervin play against the 49ers brought back some memories for receiver Davante Adams, who once watched the fifth-year running back run for 300 yards against his alma mater (Fresno State) back in 2015.
"I unfortunately had the pleasure of seeing him go to work when I was on the other sideline, so I've always known what he was capable of," said Adams of the San Bernardino, Calif., native. "He's the perfect type of teammate, man. He's not a guy who is high-maintenance at all, and just based off what he can do for us, typically guys (like that) would be."