It took three games for the Green Bay Packers to undo all the progress they made on defense in the first two months of the 2015 season.
Instead of standing among the NFL’s top units, their once-infallible defense is back where it was last year after the first eight games — toiling in the bottom third of league in yards allowed and clinging to a scoring defense that took a heavy right cross to the chin in Sunday’s 37-29 loss to Carolina.
The Packers pulled out of last season’s doldrums thanks to Clay Matthews’ bye-week shift to inside linebacker, but that card already has been played. If the league’s 23rd-ranked defense is going to collect itself, a turnaround likely will need to happen with players stepping up at their natural positions.
The defense’s fall from grace has been a direct result of the 1,475 yards it has conceded over the Packers’ last three games. It weathered Philip Rivers’ 503 passing yards in a 27-20 victory before the bye, but failed to match Peyton Manning’s wits and Cam Newton’s athleticism in back-to-back losses.
Carolina fell 73 yards shy of the Packers giving up 500 total yards for the third consecutive week. It’s a feat the Panthers likely would have accomplished if Newton had completed intermediate passes to open receivers, but his erratic tendencies allowed the Packers to settle in during the second half.
Still, the 285 total yards and 27 points the Panthers scored in the first half created a large enough buffer to ride out their 12th consecutive regular-season victory and send Green Bay back to the drawing board once again.
“We want to be much more consistent,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Our play in the first half and especially in the second quarter wasn’t consistent. The big plays jumped up and bit us. But I thought our guys showed what they’re made out of. It could’ve gotten really ugly if we had another quarter like we had in the second quarter.”
And ugly it was. For what Newton lacks in touch, he makes up for with a big-time arm and fearlessness. His ability to scramble — evidenced on his 23-yard run on the Panthers’ first series — is a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators and forced Capers to spy him for most of the game.
Those duties appeared to be split between Matthews and strong safety Morgan Burnett, who routinely tracked Newton’s progressions. The biggest breakdown of the game came in the first quarter on third-and-16 with Burnett sitting in zone coverage near the first-down marker in the middle of the field.
Veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery sneaked behind Burnett on a deep post and came free when safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix instead followed Ted Ginn Jr. up the left sideline and couldn’t recover in time. It was one of seven 20-yard gains the Packers’ defense gave up. Predictably, the Panthers scored on each of those series.
“There were times again where you looked at the game early on after he pulled the ball down and scrambled at times that first series, you don’t want to let that happen,” Capers said. “We had some calls after that where we were spying and then we had some where we were five- and six-man rushing to try to fill lanes and keep him in the pocket and try to get pressure in his face.”
Generating pressure has become an issue the past two weeks. The Packers blitzed Newton on 24 of his 35 drop backs, according to Pro Football Focus, but struggled to get to him. The Packers were credited with a season-low two quarterback hits and held without a sack for the second consecutive week.
That’s astonishing when you consider they’d had at least one sack in an NFL-record 42 consecutive games before getting shut out by Denver. The Packers, who still rank fifth in the league with 23 sacks, have only five hits to show for their pass-rushing efforts in the last eight quarters.
“It’s tough,” defensive end Datone Jones said. “We’re too good to not come out of the game with a sack. I felt like we pressured him a lot, but that’s not good enough. We have to get hits on him.”
Capers accurately pointed out the defense stopped Carolina on 10 of its 15 third downs, though two of its four touchdowns came off successful conversions. The first came on third-and-7 when Corey Brown fought through a Demetri Goodson holding penalty to catch a 29-yard touchdown pass from Newton.
Goodson, in his first extended playing time, was playing outside in place of an injured Sam Shields (shoulder) in the nickel and dime sub packages with fourth-year veteran Casey Hayward playing exclusively in the slot.
Rookie Damarious Randall started at left cornerback and got off to a rough start when he gave up a 52-yard completion to Devin Funchess in the second quarter and then a 14-yard touchdown on a slant route in the fourth quarter to make it 37-14. He also was flagged for a 34-yard pass interference penalty on tight end Greg Olsen.
The rookie shined late with an interception that gave Green Bay the ball at the Carolina 22 with 3:38 remaining and an outside chance to tie the game. The defense gave up a more palatable 142 yards and 10 points in the second half, but Newton’s early production was too much to overcome.
“We didn’t play well,” outside linebacker Julius Peppers said. “So, you can slice it any way you want to slice it but we didn’t play well enough to win, and that includes everything — including hitting the quarterback.”
Like last year, the Packers are left to pick up the pieces at the midway point. Capers praised the defense for how it responded and defended the NFL’s top rushing offense. Still, mental errors was unusually high on both sides of the ball and way too many Carolina receivers found soft pockets in the Packers’ coverage.
Peppers, now in his 14th NFL season, sees reasons for optimism in how the defense played in the second half. The question now is whether they’ll be able to carry it over to Sunday’s showdown with Detroit, which has scored the second fewest points (149) in the NFL this season.
The Packers don't have anyone as versatile as Matthews who could make another drastic in-season shift. So the answers to whether Green Bay’s defense is a contender or pretender likely will be determined by how its personnel handles this upcoming stretch of NFC North games.
“We’re giving up too many points, that’s for sure,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “Whether it’s the mental errors or not focusing out there, it's kind of been a problem for us the past couple weeks and we could definitely do a little better on that.”