DETROIT—The Green Bay Packers said all week it would be a collective effort on defense to replace the injured Clay Matthews, and that's what they got on Sunday in Detroit.
Name a big play on defense in the 24-20 victory at Ford Field and it was almost without fail made by a young defender on this ascending unit.
There was M.D. Jennings' 72-yard interception return for a touchdown, the fifth interception of the season by Casey Hayward, a forced fumble by Dezman Moses, a fourth-down pass breakup by Jerron McMillian, and more.
You can count the years of NFL experience of those players on one hand.
"They're some ballers," said outside linebacker Erik Walden, an aged veteran by comparison who was credited with two of the defense's five sacks. "Just give credit to them. The position coaches have them prepared to play. Any guy in our defensive room is expected to make plays when they're called upon, and they've been able to do that all year."
No play was bigger than Jennings' game-changer midway through the third quarter. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford's deep ball over the middle was a little behind tight end Tony Scheffler, who reached back and deflected the ball. Jennings was right there to snag it and take off up the far sideline with a convoy of blockers.
"We always talk about tips and overthrows," said Jennings, a second-year player who entered the league undrafted. "The ball was tipped and I was in the right position to make a play on it.
"I saw a bunch of offensive linemen and I said, 'Man, I can't let an offensive lineman tackle me.' My guys did a great job blocking to get me to the end zone."
The play was sweet redemption for Jennings, who was on the wrong end of the "Fail Mary" pass in Seattle in Week 3. He now has a different big play attached to his name, and it gave the Packers a 14-10 lead.
The defense came up big again late in the fourth quarter, with the Lions trying to punch in a touchdown that would have iced the game. Leading 17-14 with just over four minutes left, Detroit had third-and-goal from the 9 when Stafford tried to squeeze in a tight throw to receiver Titus Young at the goal line.
Hayward, a rookie second-round pick whose second-quarter interception unfortunately didn't result in points, was all over Young to force the incompletion and subsequent field goal that kept the Packers in it. The Lions wanted a flag, and they may have had an argument, but a lot of pushing and grabbing occurred in both secondaries throughout the game.
Green Bay's offense responded with the go-ahead touchdown, but several players said the message on the sideline continued to be "just keep playing." That's what the Packers did in this four-quarter fight, all the way to the end.
McMillian, a rookie fourth-round draft pick, got beat on a couple of pass plays but was there when he was needed most, a fourth-down heave by Stafford with the Packers trying to protect a 21-20 lead. He knocked it away from Scheffler, and the Packers tacked on a final field goal.
"Guys were just finishing," said third-year safety Morgan Burnett, another "veteran" who had an earlier third-and-goal sack to force a Lions field goal. "That was our main focus going into the week, just keep playing no matter what happens. We had to finish all four quarters today."
Without Matthews and Charles Woodson on defense, no less. This marked the first game Matthews missed due to injury since October of 2010, and it wasn't flawless, but five sacks, a pick-six and a 54.0 passer rating for Stafford was a heck of an effort.
"It says a lot about the character of the team a lot of our best players aren't playing, and still we're finding ways to win games," veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. "Guys are coming in and playing great football. Players are stepping up and proving themselves."
Perhaps most important, they're not done yet.
"We're still improving," Walden said. "The sky's the limit." Additional coverage - Nov. 18