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Za'Darius Smith - Packers vs. Broncos

Green Bay outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith (center) sacks Denver quarterback Joe Flacco for a 12-yard loss on the final play of the Packers' 27-16 win over the Broncos on Sunday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The Packers defense forced three turnovers while sacking Flacco six times. 

GREEN BAY — Darnell Savage is only a rookie, but already the Green Bay Packers safety has figured out the most critical element for success in the NFL.

To contend for a championship, a team needs playmakers. It needs players who have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, players who use their athletic ability to alter a game in an instant. And it needs them in bunches.

So how did Savage learn that lesson at such a tender age? Simply by looking around the Packers' defensive huddle, that's how.

"We have a lot of playmakers on our defense," Savage said. "We just all pride ourselves on being around the ball. When you’re around the ball, good things happen. So we’re just playing hard, just playing as fast as we can, and we’re going to see what happens."

What's happened so far is the Packers have raced to an unexpected 3-0 record largely because their defense has come up with one game-altering play after another. Fortified with playmakers during the off-season and possessing a deeper understanding of second-year coordinator Mike Pettine's scheme, the defense has contributed enough takeaways and quarterback sacks and hurries to overcome a sputtering offense, preserving a perfect record for an imperfect team.

That point was driven home to Savage and everyone else who saw the Packers' 27-16 victory over the Denver Broncos Sunday at Lambeau Field. The defense had three takeaways and six sacks — almost every one in a critical situation — in leading the Packers to a hard-fought win over a winless and therefore desperate opponent.

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Against the Broncos, outside linebackers Preston and Za'Darius Smith, both signed in free agency during March, combined for five sacks of Denver quarterback Joe Flacco. Three were by Preston Smith, including one that caused a fumble. Savage had his first NFL interception, rookie outside linebacker Rashan Gary had his first sack and a fumble recovery and cornerback Jaire Alexander forced a fumble and then recovered it.

"Regardless of circumstance, we always go out there with the mindset (of), ‘We’ve got to make plays. We’ve got to make plays to put our offense in good position and we’ve got to put them in position to score,’ " Preston Smith said. "Every time we touch the field, we’re like, ‘Somebody’s got to make a play.’ No matter who does it, we’ve just got to execute and make a play, make sure we don’t give up big plays."

The Packers haven't stopped the run very well so far — the Broncos gashed them for 149 yards — but in three games they have produced eight takeaways and 12 sacks. It's too early to make comparisons, of course, but the Packers haven't had a defense with this many potential playmakers since the 2010 Super Bowl season, when Clay Matthews and Cullen Jenkins supplied the pressure and the secondary of Charles Woodson, Nick Collins, Sam Shields and Tramon Williams came up with the interceptions.

These Packers have spread the takeaways around as well. Safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Kevin King had game-clinching interceptions in the Packers' first two victories. Just about every regular on defense has had a hand in at least one big play.

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"(It's) just having players in general who can get the job done consistently," said Williams, the last man standing from the 2010 defense. "I think that’s a word we miss out on. We’ve done it over the years but never been able to be consistent as a defense. I think that they looked at that upstairs and brought in some guys so that we can do that."

There's no question about that. The Smiths and Amos were big-ticket free agents. Savage and Gary were first-round draft picks. And the development of recent high draft picks such as King, Alexander, nose tackle Kenny Clark, end Dean Lowry and linebacker Blake Martinez has raised the level of athletic ability on the unit exponentially.

That's what it takes to produce game-turning plays, something the Packers had in abundance Sunday.

Preston Smith's third-down sack kept the Broncos off the scoreboard after they returned a kickoff 60 yards. A sack by Za'Darius Smith on third-and-goal at the 2 forced Denver to settle for a field goal. Preston Smith's strip-sack of Flacco was recovered by Gary at the 7 and the Packers scored a touchdown two plays later. On the third play of the second half, Alexander ripped the ball away from tight end Noah Fant and recovered it in Denver territory, setting up a touchdown that put the Packers up 24-10. After the Broncos made it a one-score game, Savage made a diving interception to end one drive and sacks by Gary and Preston Smith ended another.

It's hard for any team to overcome that many difference-making plays.

"Shoot, defense wins championships," Alexander said. "There's a big emphasis on getting that ball. And how do you get the ball? Good pressure and tight coverage."

Making impact plays is something Pettine preaches every day, every play, and the players have bought into the plan. More important, they have the ability to execute it.

"We’re all having fun," Za'Darius Smith said. "We’re a young group, and we’re talented, man. I feel like if we just continue to do what we do, man, we’ll be dominant on this defense."

If the offense ever catches up, everyone will be having fun.

Bucky!

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Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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