oates jump photo 9-11

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is sacked for a 10-yard loss by Packers defensive end Mike Daniels in the third quarter. Wilson fumbled and the Packers recovered at the Seattle 6-yard line, leading to their first touchdown.

STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

GREEN BAY — Of all the things that happened in the season-opening heavyweight battle between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, there was one development no one could have anticipated.

The Packers had the best defense on the field.

Yes, it’s true, the Packers’ defense outplayed the Seahawks’ defense, which has been the gold standard in the NFL for five years. And it certainly outplayed the Seahawks offense, which never did reach the end zone in Green Bay’s tone-setting, 17-9 victory at Lambeau Field.

Given the dismal state the Packers’ defense was in when we last saw it, limiting the Seahawks to three field goals the first time out was a stunning development. Since being run off the field by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, the defense has been a punching bag for critics wondering if it would ever be good enough to help quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers get back to the Super Bowl.

For one day anyway, it was, holding Seattle to a paltry 248 yards in the battle of NFC contenders. The defense dominated the line of scrimmage, controlled the running game, let no receivers get behind it and delivered the game-turning play — Mike Daniels' strip sack of Russell Wilson that gave Green Bay’s ineffective offense the ball at the 6-yard line — early in the second half.

“If our defense plays like that, we’re going to be tough to beat,” Rodgers said. “They were fantastic.”

The times Rodgers or anyone else could say that about the Packers’ defense have been few and far between since the start of the 2011 season. The defense cratered in that 44-21 loss to the Falcons, a game in which Green Bay gave up 390 yards passing and fell behind 31-0.

In a classic NFL scheduling twist, the Packers will return to Atlanta on Sunday, only this time the game will be in the Falcons’ new domed stadium. But the stadium won’t be the only thing that’s changed since January.

Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall this week when the Falcons watch the video from the Packers’ victory over the Seahawks? They’re not going to recognize Green Bay’s defense.

“That was the 2016 team; it’s 2017,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. “We all have a different identity. We all have a different mindset going into these ballgames. We’ve all played in big-time games. We look forward to going in and playing against Atlanta.”

While every defender was quick to point out this was only one game and the defense did make a handful of mistakes against a Seahawks offense that was missing starting halfback Thomas Rawls and hasn’t fully fixed its problems on the line, there was no way the Packers could have put together this kind of performance against this caliber of opponent last season.

Led by Daniels, who was the most disruptive player on the field, the defense played faster and more physical than it did last year. More than that, it played with an attitude, the kind of attitude that comes from an off-season filled with biting criticism from legions of doubters.

“We don’t care what people think,” Daniels said. “Everybody has an opinion. You want to doubt us? You’re either with us or you’re going to throw us under the bus when things don’t go right. We really don’t care what people say.”

Their performance said otherwise. Heck, even Daniels said otherwise. Asked about the new-look secondary, easily the weakest link last season, Daniels downplayed the consistent pressure from the pass-rushers and spoke instead about the coverage as the reason Wilson was limited to 14 completions in 27 attempts for 158 yards.

“A lot of our pressures were coverage pressures,” Daniels said. “I’ll go ahead and say those sacks, you can attribute it to how well they were covering those guys on the back end. I said this in the offseason, the way our defensive backs are working, they definitely took all the criticism they got and they took it personal. The way they played today, you could see they were making sure nobody could talk about them like that again.”

That remains to be seen, especially after the Packers face the Falcons’ high-powered passing attack. But for now, there are positive vibes emanating from the defense.

“It was just good team football,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “Guys were accountable. Guys were trusting one another. Guys were communicating. Guys were encouraging each other. When you have that positivity out there, it’s a lot of fun.”

Normally in Green Bay, the defense’s job is to stay out of the offense’s way. Rarely has it been called upon to win a game and, truth be told, for most of the previous six seasons, it couldn’t.

Until Sunday, that is. Green Bay’s offense figured to sputter against Seattle’s defense and it did, going scoreless in the first half. That left it up to the defense, which came through in a big way, forcing the Seahawks to go three-and-out on four of their first five possessions.

“The first game is always an important game,” linebacker Nick Perry said. “We want to put that on our belt just to show that we have a standard here and that’s being dominant. I think we did a great job with that.”

Yes, it was only one game, but that was a statement the Packers defense couldn’t have made last season.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.