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Youngsters Help Lead Defensive Push


Going into Monday night's clash between the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Rams, many figured the game to be an offensive shootout between two of the more high-powered teams in the NFL.

Apparently someone sent an invitation to the end zone party to the Green Bay defense as well, as the home team's defenders nearly matched St. Louis' offense in points production with two touchdowns of their own in the Packers' 45-17 runaway victory.

The defensive unit, which GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman has been exhorting to produce more turnovers all season, did just that Monday night with Ahmad Carroll and Michael Hawthorne each returning Isaac Bruce fumbles for six points in the win.

Less than three minutes into the game, the Packers' top two selections in last April's draft - Carroll and Joey Thomas - teamed up for their biggest play to date in their young Packer careers.

Thomas made a veteran play by prying the ball out of Bruce's arm as he tackled the receiver and Carroll was there to snatch the ball and sprint 40 yards to pay dirt to give the Green and Gold an early 7-0 lead they would not relinquish.

"It was just a strip," said Thomas. "He caught the ball and I just tried to get my hands on the ball. I was fortunate to get my hand on it and he gave it up. Ahmad was able to scoop it up and score."

The third-round pick out of Montana State felt good about his contribution and hopes for more big plays in the future.

"It's always special when you can combine to make a play with a teammate. It was nice, the two rooks, I got the strip and he ran it in so it was definitely a good thing. Everything that happened tonight is a stepping stone. It's a step in the direction that we want to be as a defensive team."

Carroll, the team's first round choice last spring who came up with his first career interception later in the evening, gave all the plaudits for the play to his fellow rookie cornerback.

"Joey Thomas did an excellent job of getting on the receiver and stripping the ball," said Carroll. "All credit goes to him and basically it was just a team effort."

Quarterback Brett Favre said the play made by the two first-year players was the key to the game.

"(That was) probably one of the bigger plays, if not the biggest plays of the night - it set the tone for the rest of the game," said Favre. "We go three and out, they get the ball, we make a big play on defense with the two rookies and all of a sudden we're up seven points and we never looked back. Our defense has just made play after play. They've given up some but they've held strong."

Sherman was pleased with the play of the defense which produced three turnovers on the night, bringing their season total to 11 through 11 games.

"I thought our defense did an outstanding job the entire night of working the football and trying to take it away," the coach said. "We've made a concerted effort throughout the course of the season, they've given it due diligence and they've worked the entire year, but it came out tonight.

"I can't say enough about the difference in those takeaways and they actually went and took the ball away from the Rams' offense. It made a difference in the ballgame - those takeaways are huge."

Carroll's interception turned out to be another crucial play in the contest. Just one play removed from a holding penalty that gave the Rams a gift third down conversion, the former University of Arkansas Razorback picked off a Marc Bulger pass intended for Bruce a yard deep into the end zone, preserving a 21-10 lead.

"It was a huge play," Sherman said of the interception. "The play before that he had screwed up and then he comes back on the next play. That's what I've said about this kid - he has no recall, he doesn't get down on himself if he has a bad play. He comes back on the very next play and makes a significant play in the ballgame."

Darren Sharper, the longest-tenured Packer on the defensive side of the ball, forced the final St. Louis turnover of the night, knocking the ball out of Bruce's grasp which allowed Hawthorne to scoop up the loose pigskin and scamper for a 34-yard touchdown to close the night's scoring.

The veteran safety was pleased with the defense's effort and is looking for more of the same in future weeks.

"We've been working on trying to get takeaways and we knew it was just a matter of time before it started to happen," Sharper stated. "We should have gotten some earlier on - we still had a couple out there that we could've gotten, but keeping a team out of the end zone - especially an explosive team like the Rams - is a good sign."

With another high-octane offensive attack on the schedule next week in the Philadelphia Eagles, the Packers will be looking to extend their six-game winning streak by extending their greedy play on defense.

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