GREEN BAY – Three days before the bye week ended, on Thursday, Nov. 6, Julius Peppers stood in front of his locker in the Green Bay Packers' sanctuary inside Lambeau Field and spoke like only a 13-year veteran and an eight-time Pro Bowler could, when addressing a key issue with the entire defensive unit.
"We just gotta get a little tougher," Peppers said then. "That’s what we’ve focused on this week, getting a little tougher, getting a little bit more disciplined. These are things that’s going to happen. We don't have any choice. That’s gonna happen. We’re going to get better at that."
The natural follow-up was, how do you get tougher?
"Make it change," Peppers said simply. "Make it change. It’s up to every individual to get that mind set during the week, because you don’t turn it on on game day. You turn it on out here in practice. We’re gonna get better. We’re gonna get tougher. And we’re gonna get better at stopping the run and it’s gonna start this week."
It was a quite the statement to make.
The Packers were coming out of their bye week at 5-3 following a 44-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints in the dome in Louisiana. Through those eight weeks, the defense was less than inspiring, despite changes in personnel (like the addition of Peppers) and a preseason guarantee by head coach Mike McCarthy that coordinator Dom Capers’ group would be much better than the 25th-ranked unit from 2013.
Through those first eight games, five of which were played on the road, opponents averaged:
- 23.8 points per game.
- 377.5 yards of total offense. 153.4 yards rushing.
- 4.7 yards per rush.
- Converted 47.1 percent of third downs.
So, could a group just decide, in the 13 days between games eight and nine of a season, to change its stripes?
"Absolutely," defensive end Mike Daniels said. "The desire to go and compete for the ball in the air, to attacking a lineman and shed the block, to fill the gap as a linebacker, that just comes from within. That’s something you can’t teach. And, everybody had made the decision to give everything they have every play and you’re starting to see it."
Peppers took his words prior to the Bears game a step further on game day, when he took the floor in the locker room on Nov. 9 and delivered a rousing speech, one McCarthy called unbelievable, and one his teammates felt inspired enough by to trounce the Bears 55-14 in primetime.
Even those on offense had to take notice.
"The one day they just came out and practiced with a better intensity than they ever did and ‘Pep’ kind of talked after practice," center Corey Linsley recalled. "He doesn’t say too much but when he does, it’s something that needs to be said, and he said after practice ‘that’s the way we need to practice every day’ and ever since then we’ve been having great days of practice and then obviously following through with the game."
It sparked a second half of the year in which the Packers went 7-1, and the defense did improve.
Over the final eight weeks, opponents averaged:
- 19.6 points per game.
- 305.8 yards of total offense.
- 86.3 yards rushing.
- 3.6 yards per rush.
- Converted 33.3 percent of third downs.
The numbers are tangible, but the improvement had more to do with the intangibles provided by Peppers and other veterans on the defense.
"Leaders stepping up, being a leader, holding everybody accountable and everybody on board," safety Sean Richardson said.
"Everybody knows what to expect, what type of energy to bring at practice and how to practice like a professional. Not saying we didn’t (before), but we understand what we gotta do. There’s a time and place for everything, and when we’re out there on the practice field we’re all together and we’ve got one goal in common and in mind. We don't want to jeopardize it, so therefore we’re just going out there and working hard and stuff at practice and putting in tons of hours in the meetings and walk through and it’s showing off."
That work and dedication allowed the Packers o finish the regular season just inside the top half of the league in total defense, ranking 15th at 346.4 yards allowed per game. They also finished 13th in points allowed per game, at 21.8.
Most importantly to Peppers – and for the Packers – was that the change in attitude had to come in practice first. That would allow for the change on gamed ay.
"He just basically made a point, basically saying the second half of the season and later on in the season you want to be playing your best football, so as a team, that’s our goal," safety Morgan Burnett said.
"We’re trying to find ways to get better and keep improving and it starts on the practice field. The same energy that you have in the game, you want to bring that energy to practice, because practice breeds good habits. That’s why I said, you can’t take one rep in practice for granted and use the practice field as a way to get better. Don't just display it on Sundays or Mondays or whenever you’re playing."
Green Bay finished the year 10th against the pass (226.4 yards) and held opposing quarterbacks to the seventh-lowest rating in the league (82.0). The Packers also finished tied for seventh in the league in interceptions (18) and ninth in sacks (41).
With such a huge hole to climb against the run after those first eight games, the Packers still finishing in the bottom third in the league against the run (23rd) by allowing 119.9 yards per game while giving up 4.3 yards per rush (tied for 19th).
Some will point to the fact that the Packers offense also exploded in the second half as a reason for the strides made defensively, but for those on offense, it’s all related.
"The way they came out and played, especially early on in keeping them off the scoreboard, and to limit that offense to 21 points with what they’ve done lately, it’s big," wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. "They’re playing great football. I think they’re starting to figure out what they’re able to do. Sometimes it takes time to gel."
What did it mean to that defensive group however, that they could state a mission publicly, and for all intents and purposes, accomplish it?
"It’s encouraging," Daniels said. "Encouraging. Because you know it can happen. You said ‘improvements’ and there’s been improvements. We’re not exactly where you want to be, but we’ve seen some improvements. It’s encouraging whenever you see things getting better."
Now, the Packers hope it carries over to Sunday when they face the league’s top rusher in DeMarco Murray and the Dallas Cowboys’ fifth-ranked scoring offense.
Defensive lineman Josh Boyd searched for the words in describing just how the attitude on the defense changed, but feels the tone set back in early November of 2014 will now carry over into January of 2015.
"I mean …" – he paused – "I guess it’s the attitude as far as you just get tired of letting your teammates down. Everybody came in on the same page. We just wanted to pick everybody up. We were just telling everybody we’re going to go where we’re going to take this thing one game at a time and we’re going practice the same way. And that’s what we’ve been doing."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.