GREEN BAY — Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was not about to divulge the difference-making reason for the Green Bay Packers defense’s virtuoso performance during Sunday’s season-opening throttling of the Seattle Seahawks’ offense.
With an NFC Championship Game rematch six days away with the Atlanta Falcons up next, Clinton-Dix guarded the secret to his guys’ impressive showing as if he was a government operative. Or, say, an ultra-absorbent yellow invertebrate.
“You ever watch SpongeBob (SquarePants)?” the Packers Pro Bowl safety asked rhetorically, responding to a question about what had been so different about the defense in Sunday’s 17-9 victory over the Seahawks. “You know the secret formula to the Krabby Patty? You never heard of that. You can’t give it away. You just have to continue watching and maybe you’ll figure out the secret ingredient to it. So I can’t tell you.”
Clinton-Dix’s quality cartoon Nickelodeon reference notwithstanding, the key to the Packers’ defensive performance against the Seahawks — holding them to 225 yards of offense, allowing them to convert just 3 of 12 third-down situations, forcing three-and-outs on the first three series of the game and protecting the end zone like it was Bikini Bottom — wasn’t all that mysterious.
First, here’s what it wasn’t: It was not the result of an infusion of new talent on that side of the ball. None of the team’s four defensive draft picks (cornerback Kevin King, safety Josh Jones, defensive tackle Montravius Adams, outside linebacker Vince Biegel) had an impact. In fact, only King and Jones were in uniform, and only King even played on defense (six snaps).
It also wasn’t because of major impacts from the veteran free agents signed since last season. Davon House, who spent two years in Jacksonville, did play all 49 snaps at cornerback, but defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois played only six snaps, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks left with a concussion after six snaps and defensive tackle Quinton Dial was inactive.
Instead, it was essentially the same group that was on the field for the Packers’ 44-21 thrashing in the NFC title game eight months earlier. Only this time, young cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins were at full health, defensive tackle Mike Daniels and outside linebacker Nick Perry played like the field-tilters they can be, and the unit’s tackling — “pursuit and finish,” as coach Mike McCarthy calls it — was vastly improved.
“A) It tells you we were healthy. B) It tells you we’re another year into the defense, so you can see the (improved) understanding,” McCarthy explained. “I thought Nick Perry and Mike Daniels had dominating performances. … The whole secondary played well. We were disruptive across the front. The experience is obviously higher, and we’re healthy and it’s great to have these young guys that we can bring along.
Added Randall: “It’s funny. When you have a bad season like we did last year, people started counting us out, people started saying (negative) things about us. But we know what we have up in the room, and the coaches staff knows what they have in me, ‘Q’ – guys who had rough seasons last year for whatever reason. For us to go out and play like that, it’s a good steppingstone for the start of the season, and we’re looking to showcase it again Sunday.”
Of course, the Falcons pose a much greater offensive challenge than the Seahawks did with their flimsy offensive line, their starting running back (Thomas Rawls) inactive and a less-accomplished wide receiving corps. The most recent time the Packers traveled to Atlanta, NFL MVP Matt Ryan threw for 390 yards and four touchdowns, Julio Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns and the Packers failed to generate a turnover.
“We know they’re an explosive offense. They have a lot more weapons than what Seattle does,” said Randall, who was among the defensive backs who struggled with Jones. “We’re just going to do what we’ve got to do to keep them up out of the end zone.
“Guys are going to get yards, guys are going to make catches. Those guys are paid, too. But we’ve got to cut down on the yards after the catch (and) make tackles. We’ve got to cut down on the missed tackles. As long as we’ve got 11 guys running to the ball on every play, I feel like we’re going to be a hard team to score on.”
That’s what they were against the Seahawks. If they can replicate it against the Falcons, then the Packers may be on to something.
“They’re a talented team playing in a new stadium that’s turf,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “They were the No. 1 offense in the National Football League last year. I mean, they scored 28 points in the first half against the New England Patriots (in Super Bowl LI). They have those kind of capabilities.”