Packers' defense delivers big plays to overcome injury depletions

Jim Owczarski
Packers News
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Two starters down in the secondary and one important rotational defensive lineman also out. That was just to start. Then, your rookie starting inside linebacker goes out with an injury. Followed by, essentially, your “starter” at the safety/linebacker hybrid position. Mix in some missed snaps from two of your pass-rush specialists, too.

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and his assistants had their work cut out for them headed into Sunday’s 35-20 victory over the big-play Houston Texans at NRG Stadium, and then they had to further mix-and-match during the game because of more injuries. Yet it was the best performance by the unit all season.

The patchwork defense held an offense scoring 24.3 points per game to only 13 – a season-best total for the Packers – thanks to a secondary that didn’t allow the big play, a pass rush that sacked Deshaun Watson three times and hit him four others and a rekindling of last year’s bend-but-don’t-break style in the red zone.

Big plays on third down and on quick changes occurred throughout the game for the Packers, something that had been missing for the better part of the season.

First, a tackle for loss by Krys Barnes and Josh Jackson on third-and-1 that forced a three-and-out by the Texans on their first possession. Then a near-interception by Raven Greene on third-and-7 to stop Houston’s next drive.

Green Bay Packers' Za'Darius Smith (55) and Preston Smith (91) celebrate as Will Redmond (25) and Rashan Gary (52) watch during the second half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Houston.

Those plays helped the Packers to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, which was buffeted by sacks from Za’Darius Smith and Barnes on back-to-back possessions that helped the lead grow to 21-0.

The Texans got on the board with a second-half opening touchdown drive, but the offense picked right back up with its own score to make it 28-7.

And this is where the defense really came together for the Packers.

The offense hit a skid of three consecutive three-and-outs, with the second one ending in a blocked punt. Houston drove to the Green Bay 8-yard-line after the first, but an Adrian Amos sack on third-and-3 forced a field goal to make it 28-10.

After the special teams breakdown, the defense held on third-and-goal at the 8 thanks to rookie safety Vernon Scott hanging on to Duke Johnson in the flat for a strong solo tackle, forcing another field goal to make it 28-13.

Coming into the game, the Packers were 29th in the NFL in red-zone defense.

“When you get down there, it’s almost a guaranteed three,” Amos said. “You just gotta prevent them from getting seven. Those times are important. You gotta be great down there in the red zone and we haven’t been up to par to where we want to be in the red zone. So it was important to get those stops and we gotta continue to grow in that; negative plays are what we usually do it in the red zone. When you can create negative plays, sacks, tackles for loss and (be) great on first and second down down there, it makes it a lot harder to get in.”

The next possession ended with Preston Smith making a solo tackle for loss on Watson as he correctly diagnosed a read-option, coming unblocked to wrap up the quarterback on fourth-and-1 at the Houston 47. That allowed the offense to put the game away, running off three minutes and scoring a touchdown to make it 35-13.

“Yeah that was huge, that was huge, especially with a team kind of up against it there,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of the defensive stops late. “It's such a tall task to have timely stops but there's a lot of guys playing really good football on that side of the ball, maybe nobody as good as 23 (Jaire Alexander). I think he deserves a lot of respect and appreciation for the way that he's played against some really talented receivers the last few weeks.”

Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Kingsley Keke (96) chases Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

The Texans scored a garbage-time touchdown late to make it 35-20, but after they recovered the onside kick, Packers rookie safety Henry Black forced a David Johnson fumble in the open field that Amos recovered to put a bow on the victory.

The 365 yards accumulated were Houston’s fewest since the start of October (they had averaged 428.0 in three games). The Texans came in as one of the poorer rushing teams in the league, and the Packers held firm there by allowing just 79 on the ground.

The Packers managed this with Barnes eventually being lost for the game with an injury after making a team-high eight tackles and playing alongside rookie Kamal Martin in his first NFL game. Greene was injured late and Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary each hobbled off for snaps with ankle injuries.

Josh Jackson started for the second straight week in place of Kevin King (quad) at corner and Will Redmond started in place of Darnell Savage (quad). An explosive Texans passing game was grounded, with Watson averaging 7.9 yards per attempt. It’s a high total, but a full yard below his average. The 10.6 yards per completion by the Texans were down from an average of 13.0 coming in.

Every defensive player who dressed played in some capacity and it opened the door for rookies Scott and Black to make plays in key spots.

“Everybody has their role and then when things happen, people go down, people have to step up,” Amos said. “You have to maintain that same standard that we have. I think the guys came in, they did very well for what they were asked to do. I feel like overall we contained them. We contained the vertical passing game. They may have had a couple things on a couple of the drives, but I think for the most part everybody that came in played well.”

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