GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers pondered the question for a moment, then smiled. The answer — to him, at least — was obvious.
The Green Bay Packers quarterback had just watched his team improve to 2-0 with a 21-16 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. And just as had been the case in a season-opening victory over the Chicago Bears 10 days earlier, the defense had done most of the heavy lifting.
After the offense scored three touchdowns on its first three possessions of the game — looking like the cutting-edge, innovative scheme it had been advertised to be when the club tabbed Matt LaFleur to be the head coach eight months ago — Rodgers & Co. never scored another point. For so much of Rodgers’ career, that would have been a recipe for a dispiriting defeat.
But not Sunday, when defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s crew was again on top of its game. From taking the ball away four times (including a clutch fourth-quarter interception in the end zone for the second straight week), to forcing five three-and-outs (including a critical one with just over 3 minutes to go in the game), to holding the Vikings to two big plays all day (a 75-yard Dalvin Cook touchdown run in the first half, and a 45-yard Kirk Cousins-to-Stefon Diggs touchdown pass in the second), the defense made the early lead they’d been given stand up.
And so, Rodgers was asked by longtime Green Bay Press-Gazette columnist Pete Dougherty, a simple question: “Do you think your defense really is legit?”
“I do. I really do,” Rodgers replied. “I think they just played an offense that has a franchise quarterback (in Cousins), two stud receivers (in Diggs and Adam Thielen), a really good tight end (in Kyle Rudolph) and a back who obviously is one of the top 5 backs in the league (in Cook). And we held them to 16 points.
“We put them in some tough spots (as an offense). And then, obviously, what they did in Week 1 (was impressive). We’ve got to start doing a better job of putting teams away on offense, but we can definitely close out games on defense, as you’ve seen the first two weeks.”
Yes, the Packers are undefeated two games into the LaFleur Era, but it hasn’t been because of the offense, which opened the game with two Rodgers touchdown passes (a 15-yarder to Jamaal Williams and a 12-yarder to Geronimo Allison) and a 2-yard touchdown run by Aaron Jones (who ran the ball a career-high 23 times for 116 yards) but saw its final 10 possessions end with a fumble, a confusing turnover on downs, and eight punts.
“They did a great job, man,” LaFleur said of his defense. “We stalled a little bit offensively in that second half, couldn't really get much going, and they were on the grass quite a bit. But to the credit of our guys, they stuck together.
“We talk about it. Sometimes we’re going to have to face some adversity. And, how do we respond to those tough situations? Our guys, they stuck together. They didn’t blink. And it was a great team win.”
Or, as veteran cornerback Tramon Williams put it: “We understand that in order to be a great team, you have to be able to finish defensively. And to be able to finish defensively two weeks in a row against two most likely playoff-caliber teams is a good sign.”
Especially critical were the three takeaways the defense generated before Williams fell on the ball at the end of the Vikings’ final, lateral-filled desperation play: A Kenny Clark sack on Cousins that set Rodgers and the offense up for their third touchdown by giving them the ball at the Minnesota 33-yard line; a Preston Smith interception off a Darnell Savage deflection that snuffed out a Vikings scoring threat; and cornerback Kevin King’s leaping, twisting interception on Cousins’ first-and-goal throw to Diggs in the back corner of the end zone.
“We’re trying to be great over here,” Clark said. “That’s the main focus with us — trying to get back to winning, trying to play great defense and get the ball back to our offense and make big plays.”
Said LaFleur: “I think that was the difference in the game. We always talk winning the turnover battle and right now, we’re 2 for 2 in that department. And I really think that’s why we’re sitting at 2-0.”
Perhaps there’s more to it than that, though. Rodgers spoke at length about the new attitude he’s seeing on defense, and he credited Preston Smith and his fellow veteran pass-rushing running mate, Za’Darius Smith, with leading the way.
“Just the whole energy of the building is different, I think. And those two are a big part of it,” Rodgers said before including several other veterans — guard Billy Turner, safety Adrian Amos, tight ends Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis — on the list of influencers.
“I just think we’ve put together a roster of guys (where there’s) enough veteran leadership with young guys who are hungry. And then enough personalities who are not cancers to a team. These guys are great team guys. And as opposed to some years in the past where we didn’t have that stand-up, charismatic leadership on that (defensive) side of the ball, these guys want it. And they both will get up and say things. Their word carries a lot of weight because of the way they practice and the way they play. And they’re a lot of fun.
“I told you guys after the game in Chicago last week how much fun that was in the locker room. Same thing coming in now after this one. Guys, I think, really enjoy each other. It’s a lot closer knit group than we had in years past.”