Linebacker Clay Matthews had already made the national media rounds by the time he arrived in front of his locker on the evening of Sept. 13. The Green Bay Packers linebacker had rightfully been cast as a hero of a 23-10 victory over the Chicago Bears, having exploded for 3.5 sacks, a total of four quarterback hits and a tipped pass during a dominating defensive effort. So it was fascinating to hear the first words out of his mouth as another interview session began.
"Fortunately," Matthews said, "I've got a good young group of talent around me."
Make no mistake, Matthews was the best player on the field that night. The second-best might have been Packers cornerback Tramon Williams, who blanketed Bears receiver Brandon Marshall all evening. Alongside them, however, there was an unmistakable level of support from a half-dozen rookies the Packers brought in to fortify a defense that slipped badly in 2011.
The chart below shows how all six players contributed to a complete shutdown of the Bears' heralded offense. The group includes five draft picks and one undrafted free agent, and as a whole it helped the Packers become the first team in 10 years to post seven sacks and four interceptions in a single game. It literally ranked among the best defensive performances in team history -- no Packers team had held an opponent to fewer than 200 yards while also intercepting four passes and record seven sacks -- and will be an important backdrop for Monday night's matchup at the Seattle Seahawks.
There has been considerable attention, including from this blog, on the Packers' offensive difficulties in their first two games. Their most recent defensive performance, however, engendered hope that the offense will receive some cover this year while it works through early-season kinks.
And although Matthews, Williams and cornerback/safety Charles Woodson remain the Packers' defensive centerpieces, it was impossible to ignore the sheer number of rookies who shuttled on and off the field against the Bears. It's safe to assume that a similar rotation will take place Monday night at CenturyLink Field.
"We talk about winning and growing," coach Mike McCarthy told reporters earlier this week. "And just based on the fact that our younger players are playing in Week 2 gives us that opportunity [to grow]. I'm excited about where this team has a chance to go ... ."
All six players handled the kind of supplementary roles that are critical to a winning effort. Neither Nick Perry nor Dezman Moses had a sack, but they combined for five hurries of Jay Cutler, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). There were no holes in coverage when Heyward worked as part of the dime defense, and Jerron McMillian proved a more stable presence than former starter M.D. Jennings did in that role during a Week 1 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Mostly, however, this group of rookies has been credited with raising the energy level of the entire defense. We've been writing about this topic for months, and it's something quarterback Aaron Rodgers pointed out early in training camp as well. Rodgers suggested that the influence of youthful exuberance would provide an important counterbalance to laid-back veterans such as Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji.
This week, Pickett told reporters that he agreed with that sentiment.
"The spark and the energy they bring, it’s what was missing, what we needed last year,” Pickett said. "[The organization] did a good job of bringing in some talented guys to come and fill in. They've given us a big boost. It's contagious. You see a young guy get in there and make a play, you're excited for him, you know it brings excitement to the whole team, everybody. It's great."
As always, talent is the most important skill for any football player. Decision-making might be second. But in a game of aggression and emotion, especially on defense, it's preferable to have a mix of personalities. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin refers to youthful energy as players who "run like their hair is on fire." It might not directly influence the outcome of any one play, but it is a mentality that can put defenders as a group in position to make more game-changing plays over time.
It can be contagious in unexpected ways as well. Rodgers said in camp that outside linebacker Erik Walden, whom Perry was drafted to replace, had stepped up noticeably in response. Against the Bears, Walden shared a sack and had two hits against Cutler.
How will this development affect Monday night's game? If it carries over, and with rookies you never know, the Packers' offense won't necessarily have to meet its 30-point average of a year ago to secure a victory. Already this season, the Packers have achieved something they never managed in their 2011: Win a game with their defense. Perhaps they can make it two.