When the Green Bay Packers were shredded for 467 yards and 41 points in a Week 12 loss to the then-winless Indianapolis Colts, they reached a critical point in the season.
"Our defense was atrocious," safety Eugene Robinson said. "We looked like we never saw a 7-route."
That was the game that defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur called the worst coaching job of an illustrious career. That was the game when defensive end Reggie White, in unrelenting pain from a bulging disk in his back, openly contemplated retirement.
That was the game that got the Green Bay defense back on track. Finally.
The Packers (14-3) haven't lost since then, and they take a six-game winning streak into today's NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers (14-3) at 3Com Park.
A victory would send the Packers to Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego two weeks hence for a chance to repeat as league champions.
In that Week 12 loss, the Packers' defense looked to be in chaos. In the first 11 games of the season, it had given up an average of 19.7 points and 336.6 yards a game.
Hampered by the loss of his best cornerback, Craig Newsome, a nagging injury to run-stopper Gilbert Brown and a perceptible decline in the Hall of Fame career of White, Shurmur's defense had gone soft. The venerable coordinator was reluctant to blitz so he wouldn't have to expose his cornerbacks to man-for-man coverages.
But after Indianapolis, he had no choice. The blitz was back, and so was the defense.
In the last six games, including last week's 21-7 playoff victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Packers have cut 100 yards and one touchdown off their defensive totals. In that span, they gave up 231.2 yards and 12 points a game.
"We systematically and methodically got better every week," Robinson said of the post-Indianapolis surge.
The defense probably will receive its most stringent test today against the 49ers' reinvented offense. When the Packers beat the 49ers in the divisional playoff round last January, San Francisco had no running game.
Now, it has a new coach (former Packers quarterback coach Steve Mariucci), a new running back (Garrison Hearst) and a new game plan. Only two teams threw the ball less than the 49ers this season.
"The biggest difference is their running game," Green Bay defensive tackle Santana Dotson said. "I don't know if Garrison is ready, but they have two outstanding running backs. We've got to play the run, then get after the second-best quarterback in the league in Steve Young."
Hearst, signed in the off-season as a free agent, became the 49ers' first 1,000-yard rusher in five years. He broke his left collarbone on Nov. 30, however, and only this week was cleared to return to action.
If Hearst can't go, the running game falls to Terry Kirby, who gained a career-high 120 yards in last week's 38-22 playoff win over Minnesota.
Shurmur has a history of frustrating San Francisco, first as a coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams and more recently with the Packers.
"It's a full load going out there and trying to slow down Steve Young and that offense," he said. "You try to control it if you can, but it's hard. It's our offense they're running. And the key to the offense is the guy pulling the trigger. Our guy [Brett Favre] is a good quarterback and their guy is a good quarterback."
Shurmur's blitz package helped the Packers pull a 27-17 playoff upset in San Francisco two years ago.
"If we get pressure up the middle and on the backside, we can get some hits on him," White said.
Shurmur likes to send his cornerbacks on occasion, but his best blitzers are strong safety LeRoy Butler and outside linebacker Seth Joyner.
Butler had three sacks in the regular season, and against Tampa Bay, pressured quarterback Trent Dilfer into a crucial third-down intentional grounding call. Joyner had three sacks after being inactive the first five games of the season.
"Those two guys have given us a dimension we really want to use," Shurmur said.
Joyner, a 12-year veteran making his first appearance in a conference championship game, is eager for the chance.
"It will be an awakening," he said. "It will be the most intense situation I've been in so far.
"It's a big game. I'm trying to keep things in perspective. I'm one step away from the ultimate dream."
Thanks to their revived defense, so are the Packers.
Pub Date: 1/11/98