Packers' defense draws line in the snow

Eric Goska
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The Green Bay Packers’ defense drew a line in the snow in the first half of their game with the Houston Texans on Sunday. For 30 minutes, the unit defended the 50-yard line about as well as any group can.

Packers outside linebacker Datone Jones tackles Houston Texans running back Lamar Miller (26) during the first quarter of their game Sunday, December 4, 2016 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

Green Bay permitted Houston to run just one offensive play from beyond midfield in the opening two quarters of its 21-13 win at Lambeau Field. That one attempt went nowhere as the Packers pitched a first-half shutout for the first time this season.

Holding Houston in check, even if only for two quarters, had to be a confidence booster. This was a defense, remember, that surrendered 153 points during a four-game losing streak.

The performance also kept Green Bay afloat as its own offense struggled. Defense – not Aaron Rodgers and company – was the difference for much of the opening 30 minutes.

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Houston had six possessions in the first half. Its starting point, on average, was its own 18. Twice it set sail from the 11.

Four times the Texans pushed past their own 40. Each time, the Packers shoved back.

Though Houston ran only one play from Green Bay’s side of the field, it actually crossed midfield twice. Neither venture ended favorably.

On their opening possession, the Texans drove 25 yards on seven plays to reach midfield. On third-and-nine, Brock Osweiler threw short to Ryan Griffin. The tight end gained six yards before cornerback LaDarius Gunter knocked the ball free, a fumble that safety Morgan Burnett returned 35 yards.

During its third series, Houston trudged 31 yards to Green Bay’s 49. On fourth-and-one, the Texans sent running back Alfred Blue into the line rather than punt. There he was met by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who dragged him down for no gain.

The Texans collected 109 yards on 34 plays (3.2 average) in the first half. Their longest gain was 13.

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The closer Houston got to midfield, the more unyielding Green Bay became. Twelve times the Texans snapped the ball within 10 yards of the 50. For their effort, they came away with five yards combined.

Two of the better stops among those dozen plays were sacks by Dean Lowry and Julius Peppers. The longest gain was a 7-yard run by Jonathan Grimes that harmlessly ended the half.

At the break, the Packers held a slim 7-0 lead. They easily could have been down by a score or more had their defense underperformed.

Yes, this was not an offensive juggernaut that Green Bay slowed. Houston’s average gain per play (4.77) ranked ahead of only Minnesota’s (4.74) prior to kickoff.

But credit the Packers for not taking Houston for granted. Only the Vikings defensed the Texans better (28 plays-67 yards) in the opening two quarters this season.

Confining an opponent to one side of the field for all but one play, even if only in the first half, is not easily done. In the regular season since 1952, the Packers have turned the trick 22 times, going 20-1-1 when doing so.

Green Bay had last accomplished the feat on Oct. 2, 2014 against the Vikings. Minnesota did not initiate a play beyond its 46-yard line in the first half of a 42-10 loss.

Games of this nature often share similarities. For the team being corralled, points and yards are hard to come by even when second-half production is considered. Five teams scraped together 300 yards; two scored more than 20 points.

One, the Scott Mitchell-led Lions of 1995, managed both. Detroit earned 334 yards in a 30-21 loss despite never reaching the 50 in the first half.

Houston enjoyed a more productive second half. It gained 198 yards on 30 plays (6.6 average).

The Texans ran 13 plays in Green Bay territory, picking up 78 yards. More than half of that total came on the last play it ran from beyond the 50: Osweiler’s 44-yard TD toss to DeAndre Hopkins with 1 minute, 53 seconds remaining.

Don’t expect the Packers to pull a similar stunt in the first half when they host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Lambeau Field. They never have pulled off two in a row, their best having been two in one season in 1962, 1981 and 1995.

Extra points

Houston’s lone first-half play from beyond the 50 occurred on its 22nd play of the game.

Before Sunday, every team but the Bears (five) and Giants (seven) had run more than 10 plays in Green Bay territory in the first half of games this season.

The Packers last held an opponent without a play beyond the 50 for an entire game on Dec. 10, 1960. On that day, San Francisco gained 81 yards on 49 plays with its most advanced offerings being two incompletions from midfield.

One or none and done

Since 1952, regular-season first halves in which the Packers allowed their opponent to run no more than one play from scrimmage beyond the 50. Games are ranked based on the total number of plays an opponent ran in the opening two quarters.

No.   Team            Date                   GB result

38     Vikings        Oct. 2, 2014       W, 42-10

34     Texans         Dec. 4, 2016       W, 21-13

28     49ers            Dec. 10, 1960     W, 13-0

28     Cardinals     Sept. 23, 1962    W, 17-0

26     Lions            Oct. 5, 1958       T, 13-13

26     Bengals        Oct. 3, 1971       W, 20-17

26     Bears            Sept. 6, 1981      W, 16-9

26     Vikings        Oct. 20, 1994     L, 13-10

26     Lions            Oct. 15, 1995     W, 30-21 

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