GREEN BAY – Two yards downfield, alone with Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields, Quay Walker did the worst thing any linebacker can do.
The subtle mistake replayed in his mind as Walker sat at his locker after Sunday night’s 27-10 win. Walker had pursued Fields across the field, finally catching him at the 5-yard line. He squared his shoulders. His back was parallel to the end zone. Around them, there was nothing but green grass.
No help was coming for the Green Bay Packers rookie.
Chasing a quarterback with Fields’ scary, 4.4 speed, a linebacker has no luck if he hesitates. He must keep his feet chopping, carry his momentum, pick an angle and sell out. Walker made a mental note as Fields barreled down on him, telling himself to keep moving.
BOX SCORE:Packers 27, Bears 10
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When the Bears quarterback turned his shoulders inside, feigning a juke move as he kept sprinting toward the sideline, Walker stopped his feet cold.
“I could have brought my feet a little better,” Walker said. “I think I briefly paused. If you can run it back, I briefly paused for a second. Just trying to anticipate cutback. I didn’t want to overrun it.”
The moment Fields saw Walker pause, he darted toward the sideline. Almost any other NFL linebacker would have been cooked. Fields had an angle for the pylon. There was no reason to expect Walker could catch him from behind.
A score would have cut 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 that moment Walker showed for the first time in his brief NFL career how rare his game-breaking speed actually is, why the Packers stood pat with their No. 22 overall pick in the first round this spring, denying the temptation to trade up in the draft for a receiver.
Walker swiveled his hips, swung his arms, and pushed off his inside foot like a track sprinter exiting the starting blocks. He closed on Fields before the quarterback could lunge for the goal line, dragging his knee to the ground about 6 inches shy of a touchdown.
“A great play,” cornerback Jaire Alexander said.
There were any number of plays Sunday night highlighting how the Packers defense reasserted their heralded reputation after an unexpectedly sloppy opener. The Packers allowed 71 yards on seven plays in their first series, allowing their lone touchdown. After that, they gave up almost nothing. The Bears had 10 yards total on their next five possessions, four of which were three-and-outs. The other ended after one snap because the first-half clock expired.
Only one other Bears drive scored points.
Preston Smith’s first sack of the season came on the first play of the Bears second possession, swinging moment. Rasul Douglas had a tackle for 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 in front of receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for his first interception of the season.
The game’s signature moment came one snap after Walker chased down Fields. With coach Matt LaFleur waving his arms on the sideline and screaming “let’s go, let’s go” to the 78,350 fans inside Lambeau Field before fourth-and-goal, the Bears lined up with Fields in shotgun. They used running back David Montgomery as his lead blocker, a play linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said they hadn’t shown on film.
“You just trust your instincts,” Campbell said. “You play what you see. You don’t make nothing up. You play what you call.”
Kenny Clark cut inside Bears left tackle Braxton Jones and under left guard Cody Whitehair on the play, eliminating two blockers. Fellow defensive lineman Jarran Reed stood up tight end Cole Kmet. “Just get off the ball,” Reed told himself over and over again before the snap. Smith crashed the right edge hard, knocking Montgomery backward.
Behind them, Campbell stonewalled Fields short of the goal line.
“I saw him coming inside,” Campbell said, “so I just tried to feel it inside out. You’re just playing within the play. I know I’ve got help outside, so you play everything inside out.”
Fourth-and-goal was an important play. Character building. The type of moment where Packers defenses have too often wilted in the past.
Walker catching Fields from behind still resonated as something special. After the crowd left his locker, Clark was asked one last question. Which play impressed him more: third-and-goal or fourth-and-goal?
He didn’t have to think about it long.
“I love seeing guys being able to run and hit,” Clark said. “His speed, man, you feel it out there. You feel it out there. Anytime you have a really good player in space, and you can get him down and make a big play that way, that’s huge.”
Walker wasn’t pleased with himself after his first game inside Lambeau Field. Between his five tackles and one defended passes, there were plenty of rookie mistakes. He was as responsible as anyone for Montgomery’s 122 yards on 15 carries. The rookie picked through those flaws more than he celebrated his open-field tackle.
His teammates felt differently.
In the locker room, they were stunned at how quickly Walker closed on Fields — but not surprised. They’ve been raving about this rookie’s raw athleticism throughout training camp. In meetings, the praise starting after Walker chased down San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance in the preseason opener. Not many linebackers can do that either.
“Hell no,” Clark said.
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It wasn’t lost on them Sunday night why general manager Brian Gutekunst used his first pick to draft Walker one year after the Bears drafted Fields in the first round. Twice each season, the Packers will need to defend Fields’ game-breaking speed in the NFC North. At least until he becomes a more consistent pass.
Nobody in the Packers locker room knows NFL linebackers better than running back Aaron Jones. As he put his socks on at his locker following his two-touchdown, 170-yard night, Jones tried to think of how many might have been able to catch Fields from behind. After a few moments, he mentioned Tampa Bay’s Devin White. Then he stopped himself: “I’m not sure he could chase him down, though.”
He couldn’t think of another name.
Then Jones looked across the locker room, over to Walker. Just wait, he said, until the rookie settles down. The game will get slower for Walker. He’ll stop making simple mistakes. Once that happens, Jones believes Walker’s potential is unlimited.
Said Jones, “He’s a different linebacker.”