Packers' defense wilts late in first halves

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (13) catches a 27-yard pass before being tackled Green Bay Packers cornerback LaDarius Gunter (36) during the waning moments of the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY - The drive ended when Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck found the back shoulder of wide receiver Donte Moncrief, whose pirouetting spin tapped both feet in bounds for an indefensible touchdown reception.

Moncrief’s catch, an 8-yard grab in the waning seconds of the first half Sunday, handed the Colts a 14-point lead over the Green Bay Packers, a team they would wind up beating two quarters later. But more important than where the drive ended is when and where it began.

Ninety-six yards prior, the Colts stood in the shadow of their own end zone. The clock showed 5 minutes, 44 seconds. Luck had three timeouts at his disposal.

What followed was the incremental destruction of a defense that breaks more often than it bends at the conclusion of first halves. The Colts, who marched 96 yards on 15 plays and converted all three of their third downs, became the seventh Packers’ opponent in eight games to mount a scoring drive in the final six minutes of the second quarter. Four teams did so in the final two minutes. Three teams did it in the final minute. Only the Chicago Bears have failed.

“I don’t think you hang your head,” linebacker Joe Thomas said, “but it gives them momentum going in (at halftime). And it also sets us behind offensively. That was big for them.”

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The Jacksonville Jaguars, whom the Packers defeated in the season opener, were the first to exploit the apparent weakness, though it could not be labeled as such at the time. Led by quarterback Blake Bortles, the Jaguars assumed possession with 3:05 left in the second quarter. They covered 75 yards in seven plays and reached the end zone on a 22-yard pass from Bortles to tight end Julius Thomas.

Next came the Minnesota Vikings one week later. Led by newly acquired quarterback Sam Bradford, the Vikings gained 59 yards on eight plays after taking the field with 4:41 remaining. The drive ended with a 46-yard field goal by Blair Walsh.

Then the Lions, who began their drive with 1:10 on the clock: two plays, 75 yards, capped by a 73-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marvin Jones.

Then the Giants, who intercepted quarterback Aaron Rodgers with 1:51 remaining: five plays, 17 yards, 41-yard field goal by Josh Brown.

Then the Cowboys, who had 60 seconds and a rookie quarterback with which to work: five plays, 97 yards, 20-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to Brice Butler.

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Then the Falcons, who took the field with 4:22 to play in the second quarter. They found the end zone seven plays and 75 yards later in what finished as a one-point game.

“You know you have to get off the field on those third downs,” coach Mike McCarthy said.

And therein lies the problem for defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose unit ranks a very respectable seventh in total defense (325.8 yards per game) but struggles tremendously in this particular area.

As a whole, the Packers are among the top 10 in the league for third-down percentage defense with a conversion rate of just 37 percent. But on the aforementioned seven drives — all of which began inside the final 5:44 of the first half; three of which began inside the final 1:51 — their allowance more than doubles to 75 percent, six out of eight.

The Colts alone were three for three on third downs during their 96-yard touchdown march last week. That includes a gutsy 13-yard completion by Luck, who dropped back into his own end zone on third-and-9 from the 5-yard line.

“Really what the game came down to for us was there were two very critical situations that had a very big impact on the game,” Capers said. “The first one was in the 2-minute drill at the end of the half where we got a third-and-9 and we played a zone, and Luck did a nice job throwing into the zone so that gave them a first down. Then they were able to march down the field and score right at the end of the half, which gave them momentum going into the locker room at halftime.”

Added Thomas: “That was an opportunity for us to get off the field, and we just couldn’t convert that opportunity.”

In that regard, Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans presents a daunting challenge. Led by second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has 13 touchdowns to just three interceptions in his last five games, the Titans have mounted five scoring drives in the final 5:44 of second quarters this season, the same time frame that has bedeviled the Packers.

It happened most recently during the Titans’ shootout loss to the San Diego Chargers last week, when Mariota and the offense took the field with 92 seconds left in the first half. Seven plays and 75 yards later, wide receiver Rishard Matthews wound up in the end zone.

“We’ve been pretty efficient in that,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “We feel very confident in that scheme.”

Unfortunately for the Packers, their defense can’t say the same.

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