- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 7, 2016

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and Sam Shields are the only defensive players who have remained with the Green Bay Packers since 2010, when the team won three consecutive playoff games on the road and then defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.

Even they have dealt with a significant amount of change. Raji, the nose tackle, and Shields, a cornerback, have battled injuries, with Raji missing all of last year after tearing his right biceps. Matthews, an aggressive pass rusher, has taken on additional responsibilities as an inside linebacker. Overall, the team has deployed its base 3-4 defense less frequently in recent years, instead choosing to add an extra defensive back or two.

What isn’t different, though, is that much like in 2010, the defense has been carrying the Packers. One of the unit’s better years in recent memory has been among the primary reasons Green Bay has overcome the shortfalls of an inconsistent offense to again qualify for the playoffs and face the Washington Redskins in the first round on Sunday.

“You play this game to be great and to win, and that’s not just on the offensive side of the ball that we’ve been accustomed to for so many years within this locker room,” Matthews said. “It’s good to have it the other way around where the defense is carrying their weight … so hopefully, we can continue to limit the points they put up on the board, give the ball back to our offense and give them as many chances as they need.”

The Packers had the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL in 2010, when they allowed 309.1 yards and 15.0 points, the second-fewest among all teams. This year’s unit, ranked 15th with 346.7 yards allowed per game, has given up an average of 20.2 points, its fewest since that Super Bowl season.

“We’ve got a great defense,” left guard Josh Sitton said. “It’s probably the best that it’s been since I’ve been here. They’ve played great all year. They’ve kept us in games that we maybe shouldn’t have been in, giving us a chance to win games late. If we can just be good on offense and score 20, 30 points, we feel we can win a lot of games. We’ve just got to do that.”

Coach Mike McCarthy said Thursday morning that the shuffling of players over the past five seasons has made direct comparisons between the championship team and this year’s group difficult.

He did acknowledge, though, that he has noticed a similar level of confidence and cohesion — something Raji believes is true.

“I think there are some things we can clean up, but for the most part, I think we’re hanging together,” Raji said. “When things don’t go our way, I don’t see us getting down, which is a good sign of confidence, just how much you believe in the scheme and ourselves.”

The Packers‘ offense, ranked 23rd this season, has gained just 334.6 yards a game, much of that behind an inconsistent running game. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a 60.7 completion percentage during the regular season and a 92.7 passer rating, his lowest marks since becoming the starter in 2008, and his 3,821 passing yards are the fewest he has amassed as a starter in a season not cut short by injury.

Sitton is the only offensive lineman to not miss a game this season, and that, in addition to affecting Rodgers’ protection, has had an adverse effect on the rushing attack. The 1,850 yards gained on the ground were the Packers‘ fewest since 2012; third-year running back Eddie Lacy, who failed to crack 1,000 rushing yards for the first time, has also been dogged by questions since the start of training camp that he’s out of shape.

“You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror and correct stuff,” wide receiver James Jones said. “You can’t be sugarcoating nothing. It’s not the real thing. If we ain’t scoring points, we ain’t scoring points. … We know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to pull our weight. We’ve got to score some points and they know we’ve got to get this thing rolling if we want to get to where we’ve got to go.”

Raji said he’s not concerned by the performance of the Packers‘ offense because of what Rodgers has accomplished in the postseason. If anything, he’s pleased that the defense has been able to play well enough to finally feel like it has pulled its own weight.

“I mean, you’re not going to get very far with one unit,” Raji said. “You look back at the history of the playoffs, only a few teams have been able to [do that]. You have to come into this tournament as we’re going to be as balanced as you possibly can be.”

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