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Packers' defense delivers by limiting explosive plays, improving in red zone

Jim Owczarski
Packers News

GREEN BAY - Atlanta was burning clock, over three minutes to end the first quarter and the first seven and a half of the second quarter. Todd Gurley was finding yards on the ground and Matt Ryan converted two fourth-down plays to move the Falcons from their own 1-yard line to the Green Bay Packers’ 5.

Then, Darnell Savage dropped Gurley for a three-yard loss. Za’Darius Smith and Dean Lowry closed on Gurley for a three-yard gain on second down. Then, on third down, the Packers flooded the end zone and Ryan had nowhere to throw. A 20-play, 94-yard, 10-minute, 36-second drive ended in only three points.

In a 30-16 victory Monday night, the four-point swing early was important for the Packers.

Green Bay Packers free safety Darnell Savage (26) breaks up a pass intended for Atlanta Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst (81) during the third quarter of their game Monday, October 5, 2020 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

Instead of a 7-7 tie, the Packers were able to dictate offense with a lead after the defense made just its fourth red-zone stop of the young season. Heading in, opponents had scored seven touchdowns in 10 trips.

“It was big, man,” Packers outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith said. “The last couple games we haven’t been good at doing that. So to be in that situation and to make those plays is always big for us. As you can see, it changed the momentum.”

The Falcons, on paper, had a successful red-zone day — Gurley had touchdown runs of five and three yards — and the Packers have now allowed touchdowns on nine of 13 (69.3%) opponent trips. But Monday night that one stop mattered. The Packers followed it with a 10-play, 75-yard drive and capped it with a touchdown, then added a second score to go up 20-3 at the break.

“It’s just that — you have the lead,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said of that four-point swing in the red zone. “Any time we’re up two possessions, that’s a good spot to be in.” 

The first stop, at least, harked back to the 2019 group that was No. 6 in the league in red-zone defense and No. 9 in scoring.

“You don’t play a ton of concepts down there, but you play them over and over and over again,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said midweek. “Hopefully, we’re not majoring in red-zone or goal-line defense, but we have to make sure we get those details cleaned up. That’s the name of the game; I mean, you have to be able to stop people in the red zone. That’s a huge part of our success last year, especially if you get a team to third down in the red zone. Those are four-point plays, we’ve got to be able to get off the field.”

For one set of downs against the Falcons, they did, and it proved to be crucial. But even with a game ball in hand for recording three sacks, Smith wasn’t leaving Monday night satisfied. Despite limiting the Falcons to 16 points, he said tackling and run defense must improve — and when the Packers wake up Tuesday, they’re still the 24th-ranked red-zone defense in the league.

One area the Packers excelled Monday, however, was in limiting Atlanta’s big plays. According to Pettine, an explosive run is 10 yards or more and a pass is one of 15 yards or more, and the Falcons had seven (six passes, one run).

But, six of those came in the second half when the Falcons were trailing 20-3, 27-9 or 30-16.

It is a theme for the unbeaten Packers:

* At Minnesota, six of the 11 explosives made by the Vikings came in the second half when they were trailing 22-10 and 29-10.

* Against Detroit, three of the six explosives converted by the Lions came in the second half after they were trailing 24-14.

* At New Orleans, three of the six created by the Saints came in the second half when they were trailing 27-20 and 37-27.

There were some good coverage played and pressure applied on Ryan, but the Packers also were fortunate early.

In the first quarter Ryan had Calvin Ridley open on two deep shots. But, he threw to Ridley’s inside shoulder on one that allowed Savage to close and force a drop. Ryan then failed to lead Ridley over the middle and away from a beaten Jaire Alexander on another that led to an incompletion. Both series ended in punts and the Packers would take a 7-0 lead after.

On another deep attempt, this time into the end zone from 26 yards out with 3:44 to go in the game, Ridley got behind Savage but the ball was short and low and allowed Adrian Amos to streak across and bat it down.

If Amos doesn’t make that play, it’s a one-possession game.

“That was big for us man,” Smith said after the game. “'Double-A' is an impact player for us and man, he brought it in a clutch situation because in those situations you never know.”

Pettine said limiting explosive plays was an offseason point of emphasis after a 2019 campaign saw the Packers allow 136 such big plays in the regular season (92 passes, 44 rushes). In the playoffs, they gave up an additional 21.

Through four games this season, they have allowed 30 (eight runs, 22 passes), which has them trending at a more manageable level and fewer than last year.

“I think with us, being in the second year, all together in the secondary, us knowing the defense better, us practicing in different coverages, who’s responsible for what, we can be aggressive but also limit big plays,” Amos said midweek. “But we also still have to do it each and every week. When we have situations like (New Orleans), the explosives came from any missed tackles we had or pursuit angles or anything like that. I feel like moving forward, keeping with what we’ve been doing, which is eliminating the deep ball as well as making tackles, we can get a lot better as a defense as a whole.”