Packers' defense embracing 'bend-but-don’t-break mentality'

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - B.J. Goodson scraped across the line of scrimmage, eventually finding his gap. His feet were planted at the 1-yard line. Back against the wall.

It was first-and-goal late in the first half Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. Goodson, the Green Bay Packers linebacker acquired last month, was just doing his assignment. He saw running back Josh Jacobs bounce a run outside to the right. Too outside for Goodson’s gap to be Jacobs’ running lane.

So the veteran linebacker improvised.

Goodson retreated one yard, back to the goal line, to slide one gap over. With help from outside linebacker Preston Smith, who made a tremendous play himself, stretching the edge wide enough to turn Jacobs inside, Goodson made the stop short of a touchdown.

“It was an effort play,” Goodson said. “It wasn’t designed as my play to make, but it was more of an effort play. Just playing ball and fitting where I needed to fit. ”

It’s the type of play that’s easily forgotten, but shouldn’t be. Case in point: Raiders quarterback Derek Carr fumbled the football through the end zone on the next play.

If Goodson doesn’t track Jacobs from the back side and make a tackle short of the goal line on first down, the Packers don’t get the fortuitous touchback on second down.

The Packers made those plays inside the red zone throughout Sunday’s 42-24 win. No, this was not the defense’s finest day. The Raiders finished with 484 yards, three more than the Packers. They averaged 7.8 yards per play, inflated from five plays of more than 25 yards the Packers allowed. They moved the ball almost at will.

Green Bay Packers middle linebacker B.J. Goodson (93) stops Oakland Raiders running back Josh Jacobs (28) at tje goal line in the fourth quarter Sunday, October 20, 2019, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers took over on downs.
Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

The Raiders also entered the red zone six times. Three times, the Packers held them scoreless.

“We have a bend-but-don’t-break mentality,” Preston Smith said. “So regardless, man, we might give up some big plays, like what happened. … Then we came out there and had a bend-but-don’t-break mentality, and guys play hard to prevent them from scoring and getting anything easy.

“We took away their chance to get a touchdown. We had to make them earn it.”

Goodson was involved in another goal-line stand in the fourth quarter.

On fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Raiders handed off to Jacobs. On film, Goodson said, Jacobs showed a tendency to go over the top. When Jacobs took off from the 2-yard line, trying to soar over the pile, Goodson was ready.

He got an assist from Jaire Alexander. A scrappy corner, Alexander shot into the backfield, swiping Jacobs’ feet from under him as he launched. That spun Jacobs into the air, rotating his momentum instead of allowing him to carry it forward.

“The hole opened up,” Alexander said, “and I’m like, ‘Oh, no. You’re not about to get this full speed and come at me.’ So I shot the hole, dove and hoped for the best.”

With Jacobs spinning, Goodson met him a foot before the goal line. He gave Jacobs a hard shoulder, stopping him cold.

“It was just a reaction,” Goodson said.

One possession later, the Raiders again drove into the red zone, this time to the Packers’ 15-yard line. Their big play was Carr’s 36-yard completion to receiver Marcell Ateman on third-and-3. Ateman leaped over cornerback Kevin King to catch Carr’s pass.

Carr targeted Raiders tight end Darren Waller on the next snap. It was a big day for Waller, who caught seven passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns, but he was well covered on this play. King came down with an interception that might have gone to safety Adrian Amos instead. Amos, diving in front of King and Waller, tipped the pass with his right hand before King caught it.

“I saw Adrian about to make a crazy pick,” King said.

The Raiders had run the same play in the first quarter, but Carr’s pass hadn’t gone to Waller. King said he noticed Waller’s reaction after not getting the ball on the play, and Carr glance up at the scoreboard to see if his tight end was open.

So when the Raiders tried to run the same play in the fourth quarter, King said he had a certain “vibe” that Waller would be targeted.

“In the back of my head,” King said, “I was like, ‘OK, they’re going to come back to this. They’re going to come back to this.’ When they did it, I knew they were breaking in. He ran at me, and I knew they were breaking in.

“I was going to try to go on top of everybody, but then I saw Adrian about to do some superman (stuff). He tipped it to me, though. So shout out Smash for that one.”

At times this season, the Packers’ defense has been dominant. More and more, it’s settling into a bend-but-don’t-break reality.

The Packers' defense generates big plays; it’s tied for fourth in the NFL with 13 takeaways this season, and the Smiths have combined for more sacks than any pair of teammates in the NFL. That same defense also allows more big plays than ideal.

Ultimately, the Packers have thrived most inside the red zone. They’ve allowed opponents into the end zone on only 50 percent of their red-zone trips this season, tied for 10th in the league. Their 41.67 percent over the past three weeks, tied for seventh in the league, is a big reason they’re riding a three-game winning streak.

A year ago, the Packers ranked 19th in the NFL, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 60 percent of their red-zone trips.

“I just believe,” cornerback Tramon Williams said, “that guys are carrying the mentality that we can’t let guys score in the red zone. It don’t matter. Until the end, Pet says it all the time, ‘Until they’re in the end zone, they’re not in.’ If they’re not in there, we’ve got to keep them from getting in there. I think guys are really carrying that mentality.”

It’s worth wondering if this bend-but-don’t-break style is enough. Especially for a team that, sporting a 6-1 record, has legitimate championship aspirations.

The later its season goes, the better the offenses this Packers defense will face. Good offenses finish red-zone drives in the end zone.

In the past, there have been Packers defenses that would’ve allowed Sunday to snowball into a shootout. This defense is different. This defense is better.

Is this defense enough?

“We want to be highly opportunistic like we have been so far,” Williams said. “I don’t think we really want to find out about the yardage situation. I know we don’t want to find out, but if that’s the way it unfolds, yes, it works. We’ve been like that in the past, and it definitely works. But you don’t want to kind of live that way.”

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