GREEN BAY — Two yards off the field, alone with Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields, Quay Walker did the worst thing a linebacker can do.
The subtle mistake replayed in his mind as Walker sat at his locker after 27-10 win on Sunday night. Walker had chased Fields across the field, eventually catching him at the 5-yard line. He squared his shoulders. His back was parallel to the end zone. Around them there was only green grass.
No help was coming for the Green Bay Packers rookie.
Chasing a quarterback with Fields’ fearsome 4.4 speed, a linebacker doesn’t stand a chance if he hesitates. He has to keep his feet cut, keep his momentum, pick an angle and sell himself. Walker made a mental note as Fields rushed at him, telling himself to keep moving forward.
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When the Bears quarterback rolled his shoulders inward, simulating a juke move as he continued to sprint toward the sideline, Walker came to a halt with cold feet.
“I could have brought my feet a little better,” Walker said. “I think I briefly took a break. If you can revive it, I briefly paused for a second. I’m just trying to anticipate the reduction. I didn’t want to overtake him.
The moment Fields saw Walker come to a stop, he rushed to the sideline. Almost any other linebacker in the NFL would have been cooked. Fields had an angle for the pylon. There was no reason to expect Walker to be able to catch him from behind.
A score would have reduced the Packers’ lead to one possession midway through the fourth quarter.
“I was just trying to get into the end zone,” Fields said.
It was then that Walker showed for the first time in his brief NFL career just how rare his breaking speed is, why the Packers held on with their No. 22 pick in the first round this spring, denying the temptation to trade. in the draft for a receiver.
Walker rotated his hips, swung his arms and pushed his inside foot like a track sprinter coming off the starting blocks. He closed in on Fields before the quarterback could rush to the goal line, dragging his knee to the ground about 6 inches from a touchdown.
“A great game,” said cornerback Jaire Alexander.
There were a number of plays on Sunday night highlighting how the Packers defense reaffirmed their heralded reputation after a surprisingly sloppy opener. The Packers allowed 71 yards on seven plays in their first series, allowing their only touchdown. After that, they gave up almost nothing. The Bears had 10 total yards on their next five possessions, four of which were three-and-outs. The other ended after a snap because the first half clock expired.
Only one other Bears drive scored.
Preston Smith’s first sack of the season came on the first play of the Bears’ game-changing second possession. Rasul Douglas had a tackle for the loss on the next play, dropping Bears receiver Darnell Mooney 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Alexander sealed the game in the fourth quarter, breaking past Equanimeous receiver St. Brown for his first interception of the season.
The game’s signature moment came in the blink of an eye after Walker chased down Fields. With coach Matt LaFleur waving his arms on the sideline and shouting “let’s go, let’s go” to the 78,350 fans inside Lambeau Field before the fourth and the goal, the Bears lined up with Fields in a shotgun. They used running back David Montgomery as the lead tackle, playing linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said they didn’t show film.
“You just trust your instincts,” Campbell said. “You play what you see. You are not inventing anything. You play what you call it.
Kenny Clark cut inside Bears left tackle Braxton Jones and under left guard Cody Whitehair on the play, taking out two blockers. Fellow defensive lineman Jarran Reed lifted tight end Cole Kmet. “Just drop the ball,” Reed repeated to himself over and over before the snap. Smith smashed the right edge hard, knocking Montgomery backwards.
Behind them, Campbell blocked Fields before the goal line.
“I saw it come in,” Campbell said, “so I just tried to feel it upside down. You’re just playing in the room. I know I have help on the outside, so you’re playing everything backwards.
The fourth goal was an important play. Create the character. The type of time the Packers’ defenses have faltered too often in the past.
Walker catching Fields from behind always sounded like something special. After the crowd left their locker, Clark was asked one last question. Which game impressed him the most: third and goal or fourth and goal?
He didn’t have to think long.
“I love seeing guys who can run and punch,” Clark said. “His speed, man, you feel it there. You feel it there. Anytime you have a really good player in space, and you can knock them down and make a big play that way, that’s huge.
Walker was not happy with himself after his first game inside Lambeau Field. Between his five tackles and one pass defended, there were plenty of rookie mistakes. He was as responsible as anyone for Montgomery’s 122 yards on 15 carries. The rookie overcame those flaws more than he celebrated his tackle in the open field.
His teammates felt differently.
In the locker room, they were amazed at how quickly Walker closed in on Fields – but not surprised. They raved about this rookie’s raw athleticism throughout training camp. In meetings, the praise began after Walker chased San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance in the first game of the preseason. Few linebackers can do that either.
“Hell no,” Clark said.
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They didn’t lose sight Sunday night of why general manager Brian Gutekunst used his first pick to draft Walker a year after the Bears drafted Fields in the first round. Twice a season, the Packers will have to defend Fields’ breakthrough speed in the NFC North. At least until he becomes a more consistent passer.
No one in the Packers locker room knows NFL linebackers better than running back Aaron Jones. As he pulled his socks on in his locker after his two 170-yard touchdown night, Jones tried to think of how many players could have caught Fields from behind. After a few moments, he mentioned Devin White from Tampa Bay. Then he paused, “I’m not sure he can chase him, though.”
He couldn’t think of another name.
Then Jones looked across the locker room, at Walker. Wait, he said, for the rookie to calm down. The game will get slower for Walker. He will stop making simple mistakes. Once that happens, Jones believes Walker’s potential is limitless.
Says Jones, “He’s a different linebacker.”