@ Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel
Green Bay — For Exhibit A of what the Green Bay Packers are all about on defense, look no further than Erik Walden.
The third-year linebacker from Middle Tennessee State had stints with the Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins and was on the street when the Packers signed him Oct. 31, the same day starting right outside linebacker Brad Jones went on injured reserve.
But if Walden was a stop-gap, someone forgot to tell him.
Brought up to speed by position coach Kevin Greene and plugged into the defense by coordinator Dom Capers after yet another linebacker, Frank Zombo, went down, Walden was unleashed on the unsuspecting Chicago Bears on Sunday.
With a playoff berth on the line for the Packers, Walden might have been the best player on the field. He led the Packers with 11 tackles, sacked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler twice and helped limit tight end Greg Olsen to 29 receiving yards in Green Bay's 10-3 victory at Lambeau Field.
"He did a fantastic job," said bookend linebacker Clay Matthews. "He played a magnificent game. It's hard for a guy to come in halfway through the season, pick up the defense and make an impact. That's what he's doing."
Walden's contributions spoke volumes about the way the Packers operate. Decimated by injuries and challenged by a revolving door at several positions, the defense somehow got better as the season progressed.
Green Bay (10-6) now travels to Philadelphia (10-6) for an NFC wild-card game scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
"It's a combination of the guys upstairs bringing in good players and just being a team," said linebacker Desmond Bishop, who also got his chance because of injuries to players ahead of him. "Whoever gets plugged in there, they wear the same 'G' on their helmets as the rest of us. We approach the game as one."
Cornerback Charles Woodson pointed to Walden's performance as an example of what is expected of backups in Green Bay.
"A lot of guys, probably names you haven't heard this season, have come up big for us," Woodson said. "Walden had a huge day for us. You haven't heard his name a lot this year. He's a new guy on this team, but he stepped up big.
"That has had to happen with the amount of injuries we've had. We haven't had guys that have been out two weeks, three weeks. We've had guys on (injured reserve) who couldn't come back. Backups and practice squad guys who have been called up, they've had to play and play well in order for us to get into the playoffs."
The 25-year-old Walden was just grateful to get a chance.
"It's a blessing to have this opportunity and to be with a great organization and team like this," he said. "Great coaches. Great organization. Personnel. Players. They just welcomed me in and made the adjustment a lot easier."
The Packers finished the regular season with the No. 2 scoring defense in the NFL, behind only Pittsburgh. The Steelers allowed 232 points for a 14.5 per-game average; the Packers allowed 240 points for a 15.0 average.
Green Bay held six opponents to fewer than 10 points and three without a touchdown.
"We always feel like it's on us," Bishop said. "Even if the offense scores a lot of points, the only way to win is to stop them from scoring. That's our job, and we take a lot of pride in it."
Taking their best
The Bears, who already had clinched the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, played their starters the entire way.
"I respect them for that," said nose tackle B.J. Raji. "Even though they had their spot clinched, it's a football game. And if you love the game of football, you're going to play regardless. They did that, and you've got to tip your hats to them."
The Packers didn't play perfect defense. They allowed Matt Forte to run for 91 yards, including gains of 25 and 21 on consecutive plays. But they harassed Cutler, sacked him six times and intercepted him twice.
"We've still got a bunch of things we can correct, and that's what's exciting," said safety Charlie Peprah, who had one of the interceptions. "As good as we're playing, we've still got tons of things we can do better."
Cutler, who spent much of the afternoon trying to dodge green jerseys, complimented the Packers.
"They kept us out of sync," he said. "We didn't change a lot from last game to this game, and I think they did a really good job of taking away some of our hot reads. They did some really good stuff to us."
When football fans list the top defenses in the league, the Packers aren't a fashionable pick. But maybe it's time for people to start paying attention.
"We should get respect because we've proved it week in and week out," said defensive end Howard Green, claimed on waivers the same day the Packers signed Walden.
"I guess we don't have a whole bunch of flashy guys. But this defense is great. It's a great defense. Great scheme. And it's great to play in. I love it."
Is it the best defense in the NFL?
"I'll leave that to somebody else, but I feel like we can stop any offense," Bishop said. "We've got real confidence. No matter what the other team brings, we're going to go out there and fight. I think we know how good we are."
Slowly but surely, others are finding out.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
You knew the Philadelphia Eagles were going to game plan for linebacker Clay Matthews this week. But now they have someone else to worry about: Erik Walden. The Packers signed the free-agent linebacker on Oct. 27, the same day Brad Jones went on injured reserve. Starting for the injured Frank Zombo at right outside linebacker against the Bears, Walden had a huge day. "He was a monster," said safety Charlie Peprah. Walden led the Packers with 11 tackles and sacked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler twice. He got two other hits on Cutler and also was solid in coverage, helping to limit tight end Greg Olsen to just 29 yards on five receptions (5.8 average). "It's just the beginning, man," Walden said. "It's just one game. I'm just doing my job."