Last year – despite ranking No. 1 in the league against the run and No. 2 in total yards while allowing only five rushing touchdowns – the Packers finished a disappointing 28th in the league in red-zone defense. Opponents scored touchdowns on 28 of 46 trips inside the Green Bay 20-yard line, a 60.9 percent clip that didn’t stack up when 16 of the league’s 32 teams were at 50 percent or better.
As a result, after the extensive post-season scheme evaluation the entire coaching staff goes through, defensive coordinator Dom Capers went about emphasizing red-zone work during the spring and throughout training camp. He devoted more film study to it as well as created more live situations in practice with the defense backed up, trying to protect the goal line.
So far, it appears the offseason dedication has paid off, as the Packers have climbed all the way to a tie for eighth in the league in red-zone defense, allowing opponents touchdowns just 38.5 percent of the time inside the 20 (5 of 13).
“One of the best things we’ve been doing is the last three games is we’re 7-for-9 in the red zone,” Capers said. “We have to keep that going.”
To be fair, the last red-zone possession by an opponent was Washington’s in overtime last Sunday, when the Redskins intentionally settled for a game-winning field goal once they got inside the 20. So statistically the Packers have benefited from that.
But the value of red-zone defense was no more evident than in Week 4 against Detroit, when the Packers thwarted the Lions’ first scoring threat with an A.J. Hawk interception in the red zone and then held the lead late in the game when Detroit took over on the Green Bay 18-yard line following a fumble with the Packers ahead 28-23.
The defense surrendered one first down, but once it became goal-to-go Lions quarterback Shaun Hill threw three straight incomplete passes, leading to a field goal to make it 28-26 with 11:51 left. That ended up being the final score.
The defense also held Detroit to three other field goals in the second half, and even though those other three possessions didn’t technically reach the red zone, the mentality was the same in terms of what the unit accomplished.
“It changed the whole game for us,” defensive end Cullen Jenkins said of those defensive stands. “If we give up a touchdown on any one of those drives where we held them to a field goal, it could have been a different outcome.”
Overall, on those 13 red-zone possessions, the Packers have allowed five touchdowns, six field goals and gotten two stops – the Hawk interception and a fourth-and-goal stop in Chicago.
The red-zone defense paid dividends in the opener in Philadelphia as well. The Eagles scored touchdowns on their first two trips inside the 20, but midway through the fourth quarter the Packers, leading 27-17, got a stop at the 5 with a clutch tackle from linebacker Brady Poppinga on second down and a pass break-up by safety Nick Collins on third down.
The resulting field goal kept the Packers ahead by a full touchdown, which loomed large when the Eagles crossed midfield near the two-minute warning. Instead of being one more first down away from potentially tying the game, they were 40-plus yards from the game-tying score, and the Packers held on.
“I think the whole game you have to be intensely focused, but when they threaten to score six points, there’s a heightened sense of urgency to hold,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “All throughout the field, you can have breakdowns and somebody can make plays on you. But once you get down in that red zone, it’s gut-check time.”
It’s something the defense would like to hang its hat on as the season progresses, particularly as the group continues to adjust to various short- and long-term injuries. All the player shuffling makes things tough for everyone involved, but it’s not as though anything needs to be said through a headset or in the huddle when the opposing offense gets into scoring range.
“You kind of just know, just like on third down,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “You’ve got to get off the field, that type of unsaid feeling. We know our offense, when they’re clicking … if we hold the other team three times and make them kick three field goals, nine points, our offense can go up 21-9. That’s our mentality – keep them kicking field goals and let our offense pull away from them.”
That was supposed to work last week in Washington, when the defense stopped the Redskins at the Green Bay 7-yard line late in the first half and again at the 27 late in the fourth quarter. Those two field goals helped hold Washington to 13 points in regulation.
Ultimately, it didn’t work out in the Packers’ favor, as the Green Bay offense had its struggles and a last-second game-winning field goal bounced off the upright. But had that final kick been true, a key storyline would have been the red-zone defense rising to the occasion again, just like the previous week against Detroit.
“It’s just having confidence, going out there in tough spots or tough situations and knowing you have the confidence to keep the team out of the end zone, either hold them to a field goal or have a turnover,” Jenkins said. “You just have to have that mindset that you’re going to get it done, and not go out there ‘hoping’ you’re going to get a stop.”
The red-zone defense – which is holding opposing passers to just a 62.2 rating inside the 20, good for fifth in the league according to STATS – is probably the biggest reason the Packers rank eighth in the league in points allowed despite sitting 13th overall in yards allowed.
Contrast that to last year when the No. 2 ranking in yards translated to seventh in points. So far in 2010 the defense hasn’t taken the ball away as much and has dealt with more injuries, but if the red-zone defense holds up, there’s something to lean on to help win some games.
“We just follow our details once the field is closed down,” Bishop said. “We have the confidence we can hold anybody out.
“We’re all competitive and prideful. It’s one area we knew we had to work on, and everybody is just keyed in and getting the job done.”
Additional coverage – Oct. 15