Red Zone Defense Outweighs Breakdowns

Are the Packers in trouble defensively? Look at the two-week averages compared to last season. Still, the Packers are 2-0 for one big reason: They've kept the opponent out of the end zone on eight of 11 red zone possessions.

Here's one number from Sunday's game: Cam Newton threw for 432 yards.

Here's another number from Sunday's game: The Carolina Panthers scored two touchdowns in six trips into the red zone.

Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy embraces the second of those numbers, and the defensive coaches will attempt to fix the first in time for next week's game against Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears.

"Two weeks in a row, our defense has stepped up big in adversity situations — whether it's red zone defense (or) fourth down down there in the fourth quarter," McCarthy said after Sunday's 30-23 victory extended the Packers' winning streak to eight and ran their record to 2-0. "As long as we do that, we're going to be fine. The other things are correctable. We'll look at it. Give the Carolina Panthers' offense credit. (Rob) Chudzinski's a very good offensive coordinator. Him and Mike Shula do a great job with the young quarterback. The adversity plays we've made two weeks in a row has been a big part of our success."

Statistically, the Packers' pass defense is an absolute disaster that figures to keep them out of the playoffs.

In two games, the Packers have given up 477 yards against the Saints and 475 yards against the Panthers after ranking fifth in the NFL last season with 309.1 yards allowed per game.

That includes 419 yards through the air by Drew Brees and 432 by Newton against a pass defense that ranked fifth at 194.2 yards per game. Brees and Newton have combined for a passer rating of 92.9. Last season, the Packers led the NFL with an opponent rating of 71.1. They've allowed 13 passing plays of at least 20 yards after tying for 10th in the league with 44 allowed last season. Seven of those came on Sunday, with the Packers playing without Tramon Williams, with Charles Woodson shifted out of his home in the slot and with Jarrett Bush thrust into a major role.

"It's something we've definitely got to clean up," said Woodson, who had two interceptions and a fumble recovery but admittedly lost his battle with Steve Smith, who finished with six catches for 156 yards but would have topped 200 without a drop of a bomb by Newton. "It's better to get the win out of those situations, but nobody wants a team to throw for that many yards. We definitely have a lot of things to clean up, and I think we will."

Because of the shoddy coverage, the defense has allowed opponent to convert 14 of 26 third downs — that 53.8 percent a black mark after a ninth-ranked 36 percent last season. They've given up 26.5 first downs per game — almost 10 more per game than last year's fourth-ranked 16.9.

But the one thing that's held true from last year is the Packers' defense continues to make plays when they need to make plays.

Last week, the Saints scored one touchdown in five trips in the red zone. On Sunday, the Panthers scored two touchdowns in six trips in the red zone — the second being a meaningless touchdown in the final minute of the game.

After Carolina took a 7-0 lead by cashing in a first-and-goal from the Packers' 1-yard line, it settled for field goals with first-and-10 at the 11 (and third-and-4 from the 5) and first-and-goal at the 3 in the first half. In the fourth quarter, it settled for another field goal with first-and-goal at the 8 (and second- and third-and-goal from the 3) and got nothing after Morgan Burnett's sack on third-and-1 from the 3 and Clay Matthews' tackle of Newton on fourth-and-4 from the 6.

In between those goal-line stops, the defense forced four turnovers to help the Packers turn a 13-point deficit into a two-touchdown lead.

"To be honest with you, we just settled down," McCarthy said. "The tempo of the game, the flow of the game, was not attack. You could see that throughout our offense and defense in the first half. We were talking about it throughout the second quarter: Just settle down and play, get in our rhythm, get in our tempo, set the pace. I thought we were able to do that. We have playmakers on defense and can get their hands on the ball, and when they do, they make plays. The defense really set the tempo in the second half."

But can the defense set the tempo by making plays long before the opponent gets in the red zone? Can this defense become the dominant unit it was last year, when it ranked second in the league with 16.1 points allowed per game?

"I think it really shows our character to be able to come up with big plays at the end," Matthews said. "But we don't need to put ourselves in that position. It's good that we're sealing these games. It helps build character and helps us in those situations in the future."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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