GREEN BAY – Mike Daniels finally got the opportunity he was looking for. And the Green Bay Packers rookie defensive end took it and ran with it.
Midway through the second quarter, with the Detroit Lions in command, quarterback Matthew Stafford lost the handle on the ball at the Lions’ 49-yard line. Daniels scooped it up, and 43 yards later, he had the Packers’ first touchdown in what would end up being a 27-20 victory Sunday night.
Once the 6-foot, 294-pound Daniels hit the open field, he wanted to show everyone the quickness he knew he had.
“I was really trying to break one free and let people give me some respect for speed,” Daniels, who had surgery to repair a torn labrum in January, said. “I didn’t get to run at the (NFL Scouting) Combine (in February), so the coaches never really got to see me run.”
This wasn’t Daniels’ first trip into the end zone. In four years at Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, N.J., Daniels played both running back and defensive tackle. In his high-school career, Daniels rushed for 2,203 career yards and scored 25 touchdowns, including 1,029 yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior.
“I played a little bit of running back in high school, and whenever I smell the end zone I get into it. So I kind of had to bring back those skills, if that’s what you want to call them,” Daniels said. “(It was) the running back, the football player, the competitor in me.”
Daniels may not have gotten any style points on his scamper to the end zone – or for his Lambeau Leap – but he got plenty of credit for turning the tide of the game. At the time, the Packers were down 14-3, and were having trouble getting the Lions’ offense off of the field. Up until the fumble, the Lions controlled the clock, with a nearly 13-minute advantage in time of possession (18:09 to 5:36). Head coach Mike McCarthy called the play a “momentum shift.”
“Not just (Daniels’) ability to scoop it, but to scoop, break and tackle, and score. That’s the second time Mike’s done a good job of that,” McCarthy said, referring to Daniels’ fumble recovery in the team’s first meeting, Nov. 18 in Detroit. “Clearly a big momentum swing for us.”
Added defensive tackle Ryan Pickett: “That was a huge lift. That was the biggest play of the game. They were driving the ball, and we hadn’t stopped them yet. That was the turning point of the game. It was a big play.”
And maybe the biggest praise of the night came someone that knows a little something about running into the end zone for touchdowns. Ryan Grant, the Packers’ newest addition at running back, said he was impressed by Daniels’ technique.
“That was impressive,” Grant said. “People don’t know how hard that would be, picking the ball up and side-shuffling. I think that was the run of the day.”
But despite the praise from his teammates, Daniels did say he had two new goals for the rest of the season: to get in better shape, and to get another chance to redeem his Lambeau Leap.
“It was rough,” Daniels said. “I’m looking to get another touchdown somewhere in the future so I can get a better leap because I was pretty gassed. I hadn’t played that many snaps in a long time. I just have to get in better shape. I’m a little disappointed in myself, so I really have to get in better shape.”
Still, the fatigue didn’t stop Daniels, who called the touchdown his most exciting play in the NFL, from taking part in a Packers tradition at Lambeau Field.
“I had to attempt – because I think it was an attempt – the Lambeau Leap,” Daniels said. “A lot of guys would probably do some dances or something. I’ve scored before but it was in high school, not Sunday Night Football against a divisional opponent when we’re trying to get to the playoffs. If I was in Detroit, I probably would have just given a fist pump and tried to catch my breath, but I was at home, in Lambeau."
But despite his exhaustion after the big run, Daniels was able to take in the fans’ excitement, which had been absent for most of the first half.
“I was so tired from running such a long distance,” Daniels said. “That being said, I was trying to catch my breath at the time. But through the fog and the haze of my exhaustion I did see everybody very excited. I heard the fans screaming.”
“I tried to jump into the stands and failed miserably but I could feel the energy. I felt everything pick up, so it was awesome and I was looking forward to being able to further establish myself as a player on this team.”
Sarah Barshop covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.