The timing was brilliant. As Bears third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie was developing a rhythm and finding some real comfort in the pocket, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers dialed up an old-school favorite, calling for a zone blitz that confused Hanie and changed the pulse of Sunday’s NFC Championship.
Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji, a 337-pound Boston College alum, dropped into coverage, hauled in Hanie’s throw and returned the interception 18 years for a touchdown that gave the Packers a two-score lead in an eventual 21-14 victory.
The zone blitz can kill a young quarterback, and Hanie — who entered the game as the proud owner of 66 career passing yards — had no chance. It was the decisive play of Green Bay’s terrific defensive performance that rescued quarterback Aaron Rodgers from a rough day. The MVP candidate was excellent in the Packers’ two previous playoff games and led a nice touchdown drive to open the game, but he finished 17-for-30 for 244 yards, two interceptions and one rushing score.
The Packers’ defense, which was ranked fifth in yardage and second in scoring in the regular season, didn’t slump at all. They had three interceptions, two sacks and held Chicago to 50 percent passing and 1 of 13 on third down. They also had six quarterback hits, four tackles for loss and one forced fumble.
To be fair, the Bears at times tried to make it easy on the Packers. Starting quarterback Jay Cutler had a poor effort and left the game with an apparent knee injury in the third quarter, and backup Todd Collins — the only quarterback in the NFL this season with two games with a passer rating of less than 10 — didn’t complete a pass in two drives.
That left Hanie, who played admirably under the circumstances. The Packers didn’t pressure him much, presumably preferring to force him to beat them in max coverages, but Capers changed it up with a rare zone blitz that kept the Packers in control. Raji briefly engaged center Olin Kreutz before dropping into coverage. Hanie never saw Raji, and the play epitomized Green Bay’s defensive evolution over the last two seasons.
It was a perfect example of why the Packers’ success runs deeper than Rodgers’ right arm, and Green Bay’s defense has been phenomenal for much of the season. During Green Bay’s five-game winning streak — the Packers’ first two victories got them the final seed in the playoffs, and their last three got them into the Super Bowl — the defense has allowed just 14.2 yards per game while forcing 16 turnovers.
Rodgers will have to be better for the Packers to win the Super Bowl, but he certainly won’t have to be perfect. The Packers’ stout defense will have his back, just like they did Sunday in Chicago.