There’s a consensus that the San Francisco 49ers are the toughest draw the Green Bay Packers could’ve received for the divisional round. The assumption is that the Niners will run it down the throat of the Green Bay defense — which is not without some historical precedent. Saturday will give the Packers defense a chance to prove on a big stage that they’re not the same unit of years past.
Joe Barry’s defense sputtered in the last few weeks of the regular season. They gave up cringe-worthy big plays and stopped forcing turnovers. In the middle stretch of the regular season, they were playing with all the confidence in the world. They were holding one team after another under 20 points and forcing plenty of turnovers in the process. It remains to be seen which version of the D will show up in the playoffs, but they have the talent on the roster to transcend their bad reputation.
Green Bay has had an obvious void at inside linebacker in years past. This season, De’Vondre Campbell has been an incredible under-the-radar signing — even saying that is a disservice to how great he’s been. Campbell was considered an afterthought, signed after being a free agent for three months. He wrapped up the regular season by being named a first-team All-Pro. And he’s not the only major difference-maker to emerge on that side of the ball this year.
Panic set in when Jaire Alexander went down against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The All-Pro’s timetable to return was unclear and remains that way entering the playoffs. There was concern that the secondary would collapse without Alexander. Instead, Rasul Douglas stepped in after being plucked from the Arizona Cardinals practice squad and has been playing at an All-Pro level. Now, with Alexander’s return looking imminent, Green Bay’s secondary is that much more lethal. Rookie Eric Stokes has been incredible, and the combinations Barry can work with having all three cornerbacks in the fold are endless.
Alexander isn’t the only one expected to make a welcome return. Za’Darius Smith hit the practice field last week, and all indications are that he’ll be ready to go against the 49ers. He’s another All-Pro who has missed most of the season and will be added to Barry’s arsenal. In his absence, Rashan Gary and Preston Smith have been brilliant. With Za’Darius Smith coming back, there are no more excuses to be had for not reaching the mountaintop.
Last year, Green Bay’s defense played lights-out to end the regular season with Mike Pettine pushing the buttons. Still, there were doubts about Kevin King at the No. 2 corner spot and concerns over the inside linebacker spot where an inexperienced Krys Barnes had his hand wrapped in a club cast. Tampa Bay exposed Green Bay’s defense. The Packers picked off Tom Brady three times, and the offense surely had their chances. But the defense gave up a slew of big plays and couldn’t get off the field in critical moments.
This year can be different, and it starts with the 49ers game. Many expect San Francisco to do whatever they want on the ground Saturday. Green Bay sees those headlines. There isn’t even a suggestion from the national media that the Packers could replicate what they did against the Niners earlier this season. They held San Francisco to just 67 yards rushing on 21 attempts. Yes, it’s a different team now that they use Deebo Samuel far more in the rushing attack and have Elijah Mitchell toting it plenty as well. Still, it’s entirely possible that the Packers step up and deliver again. If they do, it will flip the narratives that have existed throughout the Aaron Rodgers era.
The expectation is that if the Packers hoist the Lombardi Trophy, it will be because of the offense and despite the defense. Joe Barry’s unit has proven this year that they can be dominant. It wasn’t pretty to end the season, but they’ve had more than enough time with the bye week to tinker and solve the riddle. Nobody is expecting Green Bay’s defense to dominate Saturday, which is somewhat bizarre given that they should be getting back Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander. This defense can prove the Packers will win because of them, not despite them.