Unheralded linebacker has two of Packers’ six sacks of Cutler
GREEN BAY For Green Bay Packers newcomer Erik Walden, it was just like old times on Sunday.
The unheralded Walden, making just his second NFL start, helped spark another big defensive effort by the Packers as they clinched a playoff berth with a 10-3 win over Chicago.
Walden had two of Green Bay’s six sacks of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
“It felt good because I hit him a couple times in college,” Walden said.
Walden was a defensive end with small-school Middle Tennessee State when it scored an upset victory on the road against Cutler and Vanderbilt of the mighty Southeastern Conference in 2005.
The Packers had the upper hand on Cutler in Sunday’s game, as their constant pressure led to a season-high six sacks for Green Bay and two key interceptions.
“He’s a great player, but we knew we had to get to him if we were going to have any success and winning the game today,” Walden said.
Packers safety Charlie Peprah picked off an errant pass by Cutler on third-and-long in the end zone with Chicago in position to build on a 3-0 halftime lead.
After Green Bay scored 10 straight points to take the lead, the Bears mounted a final drive that started at their 2-yard line with less than 5 minutes left.
Chicago reached the Packers’ 32 in the closing seconds before Cutler overthrew receiver Devin Hester down the field for a game-clinching interception by safety Nick Collins.
“We knew it was a do-or-die situation for the team, and I think that’s the way everybody played,” said Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who singled out the performance by Walden.
The Packers signed Walden off the street at midseason, and the former sixth-round draft pick by Dallas in 2008 has been needed down the stretch with Green Bay’s injury-decimated defense. He is one of four players who have started at right outside linebacker this season.
“We’ve done a very good job getting players ready to play in a short period of time,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Despite having a league-high 15 players on injured reserve, including three defensive starters, Green Bay allowed only 240 points, or an average of 15 points per game. The Packers ranked second in the league, behind Pittsburgh’s average of 14.5.
“It’s not beyond belief,” Woodson said. “I think it says a lot about who Ted (Thompson, general manager) has brought in here as far as free agents, guys who have been brought in for practice-squad purposes who have had to play. A lot of that plays into the scouting—knowing what guys can bring to the table if they have to play—and we have had a lot of those guys who have had to play because of all the injuries we’ve had. Give credit to the coaching staff.”
The Packers didn’t let Devin Hester, Chicago’s record-setting kick returner, come close to beating them like he did in the division rivals’ first meeting early in the season.
Green Bay’s Tim Masthay equaled a season high with eight punts, but Hester returned only two of those for an average of 17.5 yards.
“We were able to do exactly what we wanted to do, which was eliminate Hester from having an impact on the game and the punt return,” Masthay said. “At the end of the day, it was a good day.”
Masthay said the game plan for the punt team was to directionally kick the football toward the sidelines and out of Hester’s hands as much as possible.
Hester had two big punt returns, including a 62-yard runback for a TD, in the Bears’ 20-17 comeback win over the Packers on Sept. 27.
Masthay placed four punts inside the Bears’ 20-yard line, including a 38-yard pooch kick that Hester let go over his head and was caught on the fly by Green Bay’s Jarrett Bush at the 2 before Chicago’s final possession of the game.
“That’s just a huge play,” Masthay said.
The first-year punter finished the season with a net average of 37.6 yards, tying Jon Ryan in 2007 for the best single-season mark by a Packers punter since 1976.
On their best behavior
Green Bay committed a team-record 18 penalties in the Week 3 loss to Chicago.
The Packers had only four infractions Sunday, and all of them were against rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
A year after leading the league with 118 penalties, Green Bay committed 78, the fewest by a Packers team in the era of the 16-game schedule.