Packers' red-zone defense turns corner with game-changing goal-line stop
GREEN BAY - It was a heady goal-line play for any linebacker, but especially a rookie. Before the snap, the Green Bay Packers' defense knew what was coming. It was first-and-goal from the 1, quarterback-sneak territory.
Krys Barnes was ready.
Maybe the play required a touch of luck with Barnes’ skill. To knock the football from Teddy Bridgewater’s hands, Barnes had to time his punch just right. He couldn’t be late, or else the Carolina Panthers quarterback would already have a touchdown. Too early, and Barnes would have whiffed.
But the instinctual anticipation is what floored teammates and coach Matt LaFleur after the Packers’ 24-16 win Saturday night at Lambeau Field.
“Oh, that was the play of the game,” LaFleur said. “No doubt about it. They caught us in a defense where they thought they were going to take advantage of and pound the football. I think our guys kind of knew what was coming there with the quarterback sneak, and that's just great awareness. And that's why you saw him in there quite a bit.
“He did a great job punching that sucker out, and that definitely was the play of the game. The turning point of the game, you're talking about a 14-point swing.”
Before Barnes forced the fumble cornerback Kevin King scooped and returned 48 yards, across midfield to the Carolina 47, the Panthers were about to turn Saturday night into a game. They were 1 yard from pulling within four points after falling behind 14-3.
Seven players later, running back Aaron Jones was skipping into the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown, giving the Packers a 21-3 lead.
The gap was insurmountable, but the Packers needed every bit of it. After scoring three straight touchdowns to open the game, the offense sputtered and stalled. LaFleur, the caretaker of this offense, opened his postgame remarks reminding everyone — himself perhaps most of all — that no win in the NFL is ever bad. Because, no, this sure didn’t look pretty.
But the Packers have had questions all season whether the defense could win an ugly game. On Saturday night, those questions were answered. Five times, the Panthers entered the red zone. They only scored one touchdown. They kicked short field goals three other times, one intentionally before the 2-minute warning, an attempt to pull within a touchdown and still have time to get the ball back.
Then there was Barnes’ forced fumble that changed the game.
“That’s just a great play by 51 getting the ball out,” safety Adrian Amos said. “Quarterbacks usually try to do that, reach the ball over the goal line. It’s quick thinking, get the ball out, and that’s a big play. That saves points.”
Bridgewater might not have reached with the football for the goal line if the Panthers had star running back Christian McCaffrey. Certainly, McCaffrey’s absence loomed large. Without him, backup Mike Davis rushed for just 59 yards on 14 carries. The Packers allowed only one touchdown, a 13-yard run from Bridgewater.
The defense generally flew around the field. When it wasn’t Barnes, safety Adrian Amos provided reinforcement on the back end. Amos finished with seven tackles, one sack and three passes broken up, including one in the end zone against receiver Robby Anderson.
The Panthers settled for a field goal on that drive.
“That’s winning football right there,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of the defense’s red-zone lockdown. “… That’s just really good football. They’ve done that, I think, over the last couple years. They’ve been really stout in the red zone, but tonight was extra special. I think it is a confidence game.”
The Packers excelled on red-zone stops last season, ranking just outside the top 10 in allowing touchdowns on only 53 percent of their opponents’ trips. They’ve dropped to the bottom of the league this season, ranking 28th with opponents scoring touchdowns on almost 70 percent of their trips this fall.
Before Saturday, the Packers had allowed opponents to score touchdowns on fewer than 50 percent of their red-zone trips in only one game this season. That was at the San Francisco 49ers, who were playing without practically their entire starting offense.
Otherwise, the red zone has effectively been a red carpet. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 4-for-4 in the Packers’ first loss this season. Two weeks later, the Minnesota Vikings were 2-for-2 in the red zone when they upset the Packers at Lambeau Field.
It has been a mess for this defense all fall. If Saturday was a change, a springboard to a new normal, it would come just in time for the playoffs.
“We’ve just got to be resilient down there,” Amos said. “That’s something that we’re working to improve on, is our red-zone defense. Keeping them out, holding them to three or getting takeaways down there. I just think we executed.”