GREEN BAY, Wis. – After playing on an 80-yard field for the first six weeks of the season, the Green Bay Packers’ defense finally made someone go the extra mile.
The Packers entered the game having allowed opponents to score 15 touchdowns in 15 red-zone possessions. It was the worst performance by any team not only this season but over the last 40-plus seasons. On Sunday, Green Bay’s defense finally stiffened on those final 20 yards to the goal line. It got stops on all four of Washington’s trips into the red zone, a hugely important development in a 24-10 victory.
“It was huge. It definitely played a huge part in the game,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said after recording a team-high 13 tackles and two forced fumbles. “Everybody knows that we’ve been struggling a little bit in the red zone so that definitely was a point of emphasis coming in, making sure that we can get that part of our game going. I think today was definitely a step in the right direction. We’ve just got to keep it going.”
After playing sturdy defense on the field but crumbing in the red zone for most of the season, it was role reversal for coordinator Joe Barry’s crew on Sunday. Washington piled up 430 yards on the day. Of the 52 plays on the main part of the field, the Packers allowed 409 yards. That’s 7.87 yards per snap. Of the 18 snaps in the red zone, Washington gained 21 yards. That’s 1.17 yards.
The streak ended – or started, depending on your perspective – with a bit of an asterisk. With Green Bay leading 21-7 midway through the third quarter, Washington faced a third-and-goal at the 3. Tyler Heinicke scrambled and had a clear path to the end zone. However, he landed just short of the goal line on his unnecessary dive. On fourth-and-goal from just inches from the goal line, Heinicke tried to sneak it in but Campbell stripped him. Heinicke recovered by Campbell, outside linebacker Rashan Gary and defensive tackle Dean Lowry kept him out.
“I think Joe B just put us in a really good call,” Campbell said. “We understood what the situation was. Once he went under center, I had a feeling. Either he’s going to quarterback sneak it or they’re going to try to throw a real quick screen outside. It was a good play-call. It definitely was a key play in the game.”
When Green Bay’s offense couldn’t move the ball, the defense was put right back into a tough position. After the Packers failed to recover fumbles caused by Rasul Dogulas and Campbell, Washington had a third-and-2 from the 3. The Packers got some more good fortune. With Gary applying the heat, Heinicke threw an excellent pass into the end zone that star receiver Terry McLaurin let bounce off his helmet. On fourth down, Adrian Amos broke up a pass in the end zone.
With the Packers leading 24-7, Washington again drove down the field. On third-and-8 from the 12, Heinicke’s underthrown pass into the end zone was intercepted by Chandon Sullivan. Washington’s next possession advanced to a first-and-goal at the 9. Gary and Kingsley Keke shared a sack on first down, with Gary delivering the initial pressure and Keke serving as the clean-up crew. On third-and-goal from the 14, Keke sacked Heinicke for a loss of 13.
“Yeah, 15-for-19 now. That’s good. That’s good,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I’m happy for those guys. Our best defenses over the years have been opportunistic ones. Some of our better defenses, we kind of toughen up in the red zone, force some turnovers and give us the ball back. That was a lot of big plays for those guys.”
The defense won’t have much time to celebrate. On Thursday, the Packers will play at undefeated Arizona. The Cardinals started the week ranked fourth in scoring and ninth in red-zone offense.
“What we’ve done in the past, whether it’s good or bad, has no bearing on our future,” LaFleur said. “You like to build on your successes, but also you’ve got to learn and sometimes the best lessons are learned from your mistakes and your failures, so it’s a constant grind at trying to get everything perfect. We know that this is an imperfect game and that’s just the way it is, but we’re going to continue to coach and stress and try to get everybody to be perfect on every snap.”