GREEN BAY — Like a savvy running back, Dean Lowry peeked at the scoreboard to see if anyone was gaining on him. When the Green Bay Packers second-year defensive end saw he was in the clear, he was able to start worrying about the next part of his journey: his inaugural Lambeau Leap.
“I was trying not to fall,” Lowry said of his celebratory jump after returning a Jameis Winston fumble 62 yards for a touchdown in the Packers’ 26-20 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. “I was trying just to get in there.”
The touchdown, which came late in the second quarter and gave the Packers a 17-7 lead, came with Winston in defensive tackle Kenny Clark’s grasp for one of Clark’s two sacks on the day. Winston inexplicably tried to throw the ball away as Clark was taking him down, and the ball slipped out of his hand — and right to Lowry.
“I saw it, and I saw some blockers beside me, and I just ran,” Lowry said. “Mostly, it’s adrenaline, though. I don’t even remember it much, honestly. So I look forward to watching the tape on it.”
Lowry wasn’t the only second-year defensive player to deliver a memorable play. Linebacker Kyler Fackrell broke through the line of scrimmage to partially block a Bryan Anger punt on the Bucs’ previous possession, setting up a Jamaal Williams touchdown run for the Packers’ first TD of the game.
In a statistical oddity, Fackrell’s block isn’t technically considered a blocked punt because the ball reached the line of scrimmage. But whatever you want to call it — a deflection, perhaps? — it also was the kind of big special teams play the Packers have sorely lacked all season.
“I think they were huge,” Fackrell said of his and Lowry’s plays. “They definitely swung the momentum in our favor, with the short field on the blocked punt and obviously Dean’s touchdown. They were huge, and they were really necessary plays for us to win.”
Added linebacker Clay Matthews: “Seeing Fackrell get that blocked punt, what a big play that was. Kenny coming back, obviously, we know what he’s meant to this defense. And Dean showcased his 5-flat 40(-yard dash). You look at that and say it’s the difference in the game right there. Without a defensive score, it could have been us on the losing end.”
Matthews big in return
The Packers registered a season-high seven sacks, the most since they had seven in a September 2015 game against Kansas City. Matthews, who returned after missing last week’s game with a groin injury, led the way with 2.5 sacks, and thought he probably deserved half of one of Clark’s sacks.
“It was great to have him back. He’s so disruptive as a player, obviously,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s an impact player, and has been for a long time here.”
Matthews came into the game with only 3.5 sacks on the year. He snapped a five-game stretch without a sack on Nov. 19 against Baltimore, then suffered the groin injury that sidelined him for last week’s loss at Pittsburgh.
“I felt good,” Matthews said. “Coming off a muscle strain, there’s always a hesitancy to really cut it loose, especially as a pass rusher fighting guys who are 300-plus pounds. But it felt good. I was able to do a lot of things that I wanted to.”
Taking the points
It wasn’t clear exactly why a number of the 77,684 fans in attendance were booing — whether it was the play-call on third down, the fact McCarthy didn’t throw the challenge flag on where wide receiver Jordy Nelson was marked down or the decision to kick a tying field goal rather than going for it on fourth down — but the boo-birds were audible before Mason Crosby’s 22-yard field goal tied the game 20-20 with 2:01 left in regulation.
McCarthy said he did mull going for it on fourth-and-1, which might have given the Packers a chance to win the game in regulation, but that he believed kicking it was the right call.
“I was very confident in kicking it and playing defense,” McCarthy said. “It worked out.”
What didn’t work out was the third-down play on which quarterback Brett Hundley had a run/pass option and decided to throw the ball out to Nelson to the left, where he was marked short of the first down after the catch. With the Buccaneers showing an all-out blitz, though, McCarthy said Hundley made the right decision rather than going with a handoff.
“When you get empty pressure, you take the option to throw the ball outside,” McCarthy said.
Added Hundley: “There’s nothing perplexing about that. It’s an empty pressure and so every gap is taken up in that look. You have a guy that’s 10 yards off on your No. 3 receiver, so you give him a chance, throw it, let him make a one-on-one opportunity. We just didn’t get it.”
At midweek, quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said even though the Packers hadn’t utilized many zone-read plays since Hundley took over, the scheme was something they liked as a complement to the rest of his game.
On Sunday, the coaches dialed up some read-option plays, and they worked well. Hundley kept the ball twice and delivered 18- and 14-yard runs – the 18-yarder coming during the winning touchdown drive.
“It was something that was more (designed for a) certain situation when you get to the fourth quarter (and overtime),” McCarthy said.
Said Hundley: “We always have it because I’m able to run. It was just something that we ran once and we liked what it looked like, and we came back to it a couple times and it worked out in our favor. When you find something you stick with it, and that’s what we did.”
Hundley, who was bothered by a hamstring injury a few weeks ago, said he is 100 percent now, as evidenced by his 66-yard rushing effort.
Who gets the credit?
“My wife has been rubbing it down, so she got me better,” Hundley said. “And the training staff, not leave them out. But my wife has been (on) double duty.”
The only reported injury for the Packers was to inside linebacker Jake Ryan, who left with a neck injury and did not return. … The Packers matched veteran cornerback Davon House on Buccaneers No. 1 receiver Mike Evans and Damarious Randall on DeSean Jackson. House said he lobbied defensive coordinator Dom Capers to let them match up. “I think every week we fight for, ‘Can we follow?’ Most of the weeks, it’s ‘No, y’all play each side,’” House said. “Because we feel like we’re both good corners. They had two good receivers this week and we felt like it was the better matchup.” Evans finished with just two receptions for 33 yards, and Jackson had two catches for 24 yards.