Though Bob Sanders was stand-up about his role in the Packers' poor defensive performance Sunday against the Houston Texans, it was difficult for him to keep his head up.
Meeting with a small group of reporters in the hallway just outside the Packers' locker room, Green Bay's defensive coordinator almost seemed embarrassed by what he just saw — that is, his defense giving up 549 yards to a 5-7 team on a bitterly cold December day at Lambeau Field.
"It is my responsibility," said Sanders, "so I take that responsibility and will continue to work hard and try to get the guys in position. We have a good team, we have good players. We just have to get them in better position to make the plays that they can make. That starts with me."
What has been a difficult season for the Packers' defense, and a particularly awful three-game stretch, hit rock bottom Sunday. The Texans, playing for the first time at Lambeau, and quarterback Matt Schaub, playing his first game in four weeks, beat the Packers 24-21 on a 40-yard field goal by Kris Brown as time expired.
Even with a game-time temperature of just 3, Schaub had his way with the Packers, throwing for 414 yards on 28-of-42 passing. Only two quarterbacks (Marc Bulger in 2004 and Randall Cunningham in 1998) have thrown for more yards against the Packers at Lambeau Field.
To make matters worse, the Packers had trouble stopping the run again, too, and they had virtually no pass rush even when they blitzed. Add it up, and the Texans' 549 yards are the most the Packers have surrendered since the famous 48-47 "Monday Night Football" victory over the Redskins in 1983.
"The big plays are something that has kind of lingered of late," coach Mike McCarthy said. "If you go back to New Orleans all the way through today's game, we're making big plays, getting turnovers, but we definitely can't offset it. It's an explosive-gains National Football League, and we're not doing our job in holding that part down."
As bad as the Packers' defense was in allowing yards, it did force four turnovers and had a chance to at least send the game to overtime. With the game tied at 21 and less than 2 minutes remaining, new Packers punter Jeremy Kapinos pinned the Texans deep when his 35-yard punt was downed at the 3-yard line line by Spencer Havner.
"That is about as bad a situation as you can be in," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "They had two timeouts. You have to get the ball out of your own end zone and you are probably thinking, ‘How do I get to overtime?' So, we said, ‘Let's pound it out a couple of yards, let's take a shot with Andre (Johnson) on the second play,' but we didn't get the coverage that we wanted. Matt dumped the ball to Vonta (Leach), and he makes the best catch that I have ever seen him make. Now all of a sudden, we go from being nonaggressive trying to get to overtime to being aggressive and trying to win the game."
Leach's 22-yard catch-and-run gave the Texans new life with 1:34 remaining. It also took Nick Collins out of the game as he was injured on the tackle and did not return.
From there, the Texans went to work in the middle of the field against the Packers like they had all day. The big play to set up the winning field goal came when Owen Daniels burned linebacker Desmond Bishop for a 27-yard gain down to the 25-yard line with just 25 seconds left.
Also not helping the Packers' cause on the final drive was Collins' replacement, Aaron Rouse. The second-year safety was lined up much too deep, some 30 yards from the line of scrimmage for most of the drive, thereby creating a favorable passing situation for the Texans underneath the coverage.
"We've just got to do a better job protecting the middle," said Sanders. "That's what our defense is based on — protecting the middle."
While Al Harris did a decent job on the NFL's leading receiver, Andre Johnson (four catches for 55 yards), it was Kevin Walter (six catches for 146 yards and a 58-yard touchdown) and Daniels (six catches, 65 yards) who did most of the damage. They were on the receiving end of a number of effective play-action fakes by Schaub that had the Packers scrambling.
"With the aggressive nature of our defense," said cornerback Tramon Williams, "they did a good job with their play-calling and it paid off for them."
Though the Packers blitzed more than usual, they recorded only one sack. Take away defensive end Aaron Kampman, and the Packers have just 11.5 sacks. Only 2.5 of those are from active defensive linemen.
"The pass rush ties into coverage," said McCarthy. "If you want to be aggressive in a man-to-man scheme ... the pass rush factors into that. It's the ability to push the pocket and rush the passer to take away their No. 1 receiver in their route progression. I think it's not always just the pass defense of the secondary. You have got to factor in the pass rush. When those two don't work hand in hand, you have issues. They were aggressive going down the field on us. They had some double moves that they were able to convert on us. You have to weigh it both ways. The pass coverage fits with the pass rush."
Now 5-8, the Packers are all but out of the NFC playoff picture. The nature of the loss Sunday was all too familiar to the Packers and their defense, now on the receiving end of five losses by four points or less this season.
"We were in position to win the game," said Sanders. "It starts with me. We didn't get it done. It hurts, but we've got to go back to work."
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Defense hits rock bottom vs. Texans
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