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Sunday, 16 September 2018

Tom Oates: Packers defense folds under pressure against Vikings

Tom Oates: Packers defense folds under pressure against Vikings

An interception by Green Bay Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with just over 2 minutes to play and the Packers ahead of the Minnesota Vikings by three Sunday triggered a feeling of relief in cornerback Jaire Alexander.

Rookie mistake.

"When Ha Ha got the pick, I’m like, 'Man, in college this game would be over,' " Alexander said. "But, dang, in the NFL we have to go back out there another time."

Having to go out and protect a late lead hasn't been the best situation for the Packers defense since, oh, 2015. This season was supposed to be different, though. And the showdown with the rival Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field was supposed to provide the perfect test.

Indeed, the biggest question Sunday wasn't whether Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers would be able to play on an injured left knee. It was whether his teammates could rise to the occasion and play well enough to win games while he recuperates on the fly over the next month or two. And, yes, we're talking about the defense here.

For three quarters, the cornerback-infused defense of first-year coordinator Mike Pettine gave every indication that it finally could pull its weight after back-to-back seasons in which it was often helpless trying to stop elite passing attacks. Then the fourth quarter started and Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins showed that the Packers defense isn't yet up to winning a game by itself.

Tying a game? Yes. But winning a game? Not yet.

The Packers' 29-29 tie with the Vikings might seem like progress, but it felt like a loss because the Packers had painstakingly built a 20-7 lead entering the fourth quarter and lost every point of it. Clinton-Dix's interception aside, the Packers gave up three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and allowed Cousins to control both the fourth quarter and overtime with his arm. Only the inability of rookie kicker Daniel Carlson to convert two makable field goals in overtime prevented Green Bay's late defensive collapse from leading to a loss.

"There was a point in time where we were like, ‘Hey, we HAVE this. They’re not doing anything crazy. We are just playing our plays, everyone’s doing our job,’ " linebacker Blake Martinez said. "Then when those things started to happen, obviously I haven’t looked at the tape, but I think it was just guys trying to make a play or just not focused in and being out of position at little moments that allowed them to make those plays."

Cousins, the latest in a long line of quarterback saviors in Minnesota, threw touchdown passes of 3 and 75 yards to wide receiver Stefon Diggs that trimmed the Packers' lead to 23-21. Two Mason Crosby field goals, the second after Clinton-Dix's interception, pushed Green Bay's lead to 29-21 with 1:45 to play.

The Packers defense could have ended the proceedings on the next play when linebacker Clay Matthews hit Cousins as he threw and Alexander picked off his deep pass. However, the interception was negated when Matthews was penalized for roughing the passer, a call so bogus that some of the Vikings couldn't believe their good luck. Eight plays later, Cousins hit wide receiver Adam Thielen for a 22-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left, then found Diggs for the game-tying two-point conversion.

For the Packers, the backbreakers were the 75-yard touchdown pass on which Diggs got behind cornerback Davon House and deep safety Kentrell Brice took himself out of the play and the 22-yard pass to Thielen on which Brice had a chance to knock the ball down but for some reason didn't make a play on it.

"We were playing really well for three, three-and-a-half quarters," Martinez said. "Then all of a sudden, there were plays here and there that ended up hurting us."

Actually, big plays by the Vikings killed the Packers. Even in overtime, Minnesota twice drove into field-goal range, once on Cousins' 24-yard swing pass to halfback Dalvin Cook, once on his 25-yard pass to Thielen on a corner route.

Just like that, a defense that had been playing remarkably well for 45 minutes lost its momentum. The Vikings had 238 yards through three quarters and 242 more in the fourth quarter and overtime. Cousins threw for 206 yards through three quarters, 219 after that.

"They hit their big plays," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "You have to have big plays in this league. You look at your analytics and it’s been like that for years. Points come from big plays and they hit a couple of those in the fourth quarter."

Of course, the Packers offense could have ended the suspense with a touchdown at any point and Crosby's 52-yard miss at the end of regulation would have sent Lambeau into a state of bliss, but given Rodgers' lack of mobility and the stellar Vikings pass rush, the Packers were lucky to get 29 points. The hope was that the defense could hold off the Vikings and give the Packers a 2-0 record.

But after Alexander's potential game-ending pick was nullified on a play where Matthews did everything by the book yet still ended up drawing a flag, the Packers defense couldn't regroup.

"It's tough, but the good teams do it," House said. "On that pick, people were saying it wasn't a (penalty), but when adversity hits, we've got to show up."

The defense showed up Sunday, it just didn't stay long enough.

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