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Eric Goska column: Defense can't follow up on early stop

Sep. 9, 2012
 

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Green Bay Packers linebackers A.J. Hawk (50) and Clay Matthews (52) tackle San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore on Sunday at Lambeau Field. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette

EXTRA POINT

The last time a Packers opponent scored so often after being stopped on its initial drive occurred on Nov. 24, 2008. Green Bay forced the Saints to punt on their opening possession, then allowed New Orleans to score three touchdowns, a field goal, and two more touchdowns before falling 51-29 at the Louisiana Superdome.

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Clearly, one canít judge a defense by a single series.

On Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Packers forced San Francisco into a three-and-out, then sat back and permitted the 49ers to score on each of their next five possessions. In falling 30-22, Green Bay yielded three field goals and two touchdowns as the 49ers built an imposing 23-7 lead through three quarters.

Green Bayís defense, last in yards given up a year ago, was expected to make strides with an infusion of young talent from Aprilís draft. Instead, as was the case in all but three games last year, the Packers surrendered more than 350 yards, giving up 377 to a team that hit or exceeded that number just four times during the 2011 regular season.

For one series, though, the promise of new and improved held. Green Bay did not give up a first down on San Franciscoís opening drive.

Linebacker A.J. Hawk and defensive end C.J. Wilson held running back Frank Gore to 5 yards on San Franciscoís first play. Wilson then tackled Kendall Hunter after a 4-yard gain.

On third down, linebacker Clay Matthews beat tackle Joe Staley and dumped quarterback Alex Smith for a 5-yard loss. Just like that, Andy Lee had to punt with 1 minute, 46 seconds of game clock elapsed.

After that stop, however, Lee spent more time holding on field-goal and extra-point attempts than he did utilizing his leg. Last yearís league leader in gross and net average didnít punt again until 53 seconds remained in the third quarter.

On in its next five possessions, San Francisco rolled to 284 yards, as it amassed just more than three quarters of its offensive output. Randy Moss and Vernon Davis caught touchdown passes from Alex Smith on touchdown drives of 92 and 84 yards, and David Akers kicked field goals on a trio of shorter advances.

It was more than enough to spoil that promising three-and-out.

Holding a team without a first down on its opening drive may not seem like much. Yet, when Green Bay has done that this century, scoring sprees like the one perpetrated by the 49ers rarely occur.

Not only that, but the Packers tend to win those games. From 2000 through 2011, Green Bay was 49-17 (.742) in regular-season games in which it did not allow a first down or score on the first drive by its opponent.

Trouble was, the Packers only did that three times last year. On those other occasions, quarterbacks Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers or others moved up and down the field, picking up at least one first down 13 times and winding up with touchdowns six times.

Last year, Aaron Rodgers and the offense usually overcame the poor performances by the defense. That didnít happen against the 49ers.

Rodgers managed just two completions of more than 20 yards. On each, he had to extend the play with his feet.

Rodgers hooked up with Jordy Nelson for 28 yards in the second quarter. He hit James Jones for 49 in the fourth.

The Packers scored touchdowns on both drives.

This season, defensive improvement may have to be measured in small increments. After all, itís rare for a major overhaul to happen overnight.

That said, stopping a team on its opening possession might ordinarily count as a small step forward. But in the case of the Packers, it hardly qualifies because it merely delayed a leaky performance that was so reminiscent of 2011.

Eric Goska is a Press-Gazette correspondent, a Packers historian and the author of ďGreen Bay Packers: A Measure of Greatness,Ē a statistical history of the Packers. Email him at aegoska@sbcglobal.net.

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