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Silverstein: Packers' defense survives significant test against an elite quarterback

Tom Silverstein   | Packers News

GREEN BAY – All season long, the knock against the Green Bay Packers defense was that they had not beaten an elite quarterback.

Shoot, they didn’t even get a chance to face a really good one en route to a 13-3 record.

They beat a couple decent ones – Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Dallas’ Dak Prescott – but Patrick Mahomes was hurt when they played Kansas City and no one else on their schedule was in the great category, let alone elite.

Then, on Sunday, they might as well have been playing one-on-one basketball against Los Angeles Lakers superstar Anthony Davis, who just happened to be at Lambeau Field, using a break between games in Oklahoma City and back in LA to roam the sideline wearing an Aaron Rodgers jersey.

If not Davis, then LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo or Steph Curry.

That’s who Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson resembled in a divisional playoff game in which he nearly willed the Seahawks to victory with one of the best all-around performances of the post-season.

“He’s Houdini back there,” Packers cornerback Kevin King said.

“He’s unbelievable,” nose tackle Kenny Clark concurred.

“We have not faced anyone like Russell Wilson,” cornerback Tramon Williams added.

Despite his heroics – 21 of 31 passing for 277 yards and a touchdown, plus seven rushes for 64 yards – the Packers defense won just enough series to beat the Seahawks, 28-23, in front of 78,998 fans at Lambeau Field.

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They advanced to the NFC Championship Game on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers because they finally sacked Wilson on third down with 3:22 left and forced a punt, ending a string of three Seahawks possessions that resulted in touchdowns.

Winning a game like this against a quarterback like this is invaluable when it comes to the playoffs.

“Every win gives us confidence,” linebacker Blake Martinez said. “This is another one that we made the corrections two weeks ago that we didn’t make in the first half. Doing those things, it’s just going to keep building and keep building and I think we’ve got a good shot to go out there and win next week.”

How tough did it get?

It was 21-3 at halftime, but Williams kept telling anyone who would listen that Wilson was not going down without a fight. And the Packers were going to have to withstand everything he threw at them.

“The way the first half went I could have wrote the story of the second half because I know the type of guy Russell Wilson is, the character he is," said Williams. "He is a winner. He is going to put his team in a position to win.

“And I knew that. I don’t know if the other guys did, but I knew that. “

Wilson tormented the Packers defense, continually escaping pressure and then placing the middle depth players in limbo holding the ball on his scrambles outside the pocket, daring them to chase him so he could dump it off to the guy waiting right behind them.

And if they didn’t chase, he just ran the ball.

“There’s some guys in this league that play quarterback that are once-in-a-lifetime-type players and he’s one of them,” said outside linebacker Preston Smith, who made the clutch third-down sack in the fourth quarter. “He’s a guy that makes a lot of plays happen in multiple ways.”

Pressuring him was difficult because if you’re too aggressive and leave your rush lane, he’ll run right through that it.

“He sees which way you’re winning (your rush) and he goes the other way,” outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell said. “We did a really good job getting him off his spot, but he’s creating extra time and you have to do as much as you can to contain him.”

And as Smith, Clark and many others found out, if you get your arms around him, it doesn’t mean he’s going down. Wilson must have slipped out of a half dozen sacks, including one in which Smith had him wrapped up with both arms and then fell to the ground holding a whole bunch of nothing.

“He’s short,” Smith said. “It’s all about your approach to him. If you get too high, he’ll duck right up under you because he’s got a low center of gravity and great balance.”

If you blitz him, he’ll find the one-on-one receiver and burn you down the field as he did in the first quarter on a 28-yard completion to receiver Tyler Lockett on cornerback Jaire Alexander.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine rarely blitzed him after that.

On the last series, the Packers finally caught up. Za’Darius Smith pressured Wilson into an incompletion on first and 10 at the Seattle 37. On second down, King was in perfect position to cut down tight end Jacob Hollister in the flat for a 5-yard gain.

And on third and 5, Pettine had Preston Smith jam Hollister to keep him from releasing and then go after Wilson. Right tackle Germain Ifedi thought Hollister was going to take Smith and turned to help inside. Smith ran right by the two and sacked Wilson.

We’ll never know if the Packers cracked the secret of defending Wilson because the Seahawks never got the ball back.

But what the Packers defense can take away from this game is that they went against one of the best and they prevailed. They shut down Seattle’s running game, holding Marshawn Lynch and Travis Homer to a combined 15 carries for 39 yards and they held the Seahawks to three points in the first half.

Wilson and the Seahawks were the toughest match-up the Packers defense has faced since the 49ers blasted them, 37-8, at Levi’s Stadium on Nov. 24.

Pettine had to get out of his comfort zone against Wilson and play a considerable amount of zone coverage because zone coverage allows the defensive backs and linebackers to keep their eyes on the quarterback and rally to him if he decides to scramble.

The Packers are mostly a man coverage team with a pair of aggressive safeties who like to jump routes and charge the line of scrimmage. They played coverages they wouldn’t normally use against other quarterbacks and they won.

Now they head back to Santa Clara to take on the 49ers for a second time and they carry with them the cache of beating an elite quarterback. The 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t an elite quarterback; he just put up elite numbers against them, posting a passer rating of 145.8 in the home victory.

The experience of beating Wilson in a game that could have gone either way shouldn’t be ignored. Next Sunday, they’re going to be facing a quarterback who might not be as skilled as Wilson but whose offense is elite because of its overall talent and head coach Kyle Shanahan’s masterful game-planning.

“Every week is different, every game is different,” Williams said. “People ask us, ‘You guys have been inconsistent all of these weeks and ask, how do we get consistent?’ I say, ‘Keep trying.’ All you can do is take it week to week.

“We’re trying to get better and that’s what we keep doing.”

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