Defense Turns Up Heat in Houston

Last season, the Packers finished a surprising ninth in points allowed. How good can this unit get?
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Entering Sunday, the Green Bay Packers had allowed 30-plus points three times. That was tied for the most through the first five games in franchise history.

The 139 points allowed during that span were the seventh-most in team history.

The defense might be turning a corner, though. The Packers beat the Houston Texans 35-20 on Sunday. Mike Pettine’s unit dominated the first half and allowed only one touchdown through the first 58 minutes against a quality offense led by one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks.

By game’s end, Deshaun Watson completed 29-of-39 passes for 309 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Green Bay entered the game ranked 26th with an opponent passer rating of 106.2. Watson’s 114.2 won’t improve on that black mark.

The Packers, however, were in control throughout the game, which is what matters. Watson had 183 yards after halftime, so some of his production was fluff. The Packers collected three sacks and matched their season high with 18 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. They smothered the Texans’ running game and didn’t let one of the NFL’s best deep-ball throwers to strike for a big play.

OFFENSE: DEVOURS ANOTHER CUPCAKE

DEFENSE: TURNS UP THE HEAT

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“You want to eliminate big plays but remain a little aggressive at the same time,” safety Adrian Amos said. “They have a lot of speed over there. They’re ranked high in explosive plays. That was our job to eliminate those big plays that they’re accustomed to having.”

The Packers woke up in snowy Green Bay on Monday ranked 19th with 26.5 points allowed per game. However, improvement is evident if not dramatic. The high-powered Falcons managed only 16 points in Week 4. The Buccaneers scored 38 in Week 6, though 14 of those were provided by Aaron Rodgers interceptions.

Sunday was another solid step, especially with cornerback Kevin King out of action. In the first half, four of Houston’s five possessions never crossed midfield. In the second half, Houston had a chance to rally after Green Bay’s offense went in a funk with three consecutive three-and-out punts. On the first, the Texans drove to Green Bay’s 8 before Amos’ third-down sack. On the second – the blocked punt that put Houston in immediate scoring position – the Texans again got to the 8 but Watson threw three consecutive passes that resulted in a loss of 3 yards. On the third, Preston Smith destroyed a fourth-down option run by Watson.

“I think we had four three-and-outs on the day – three of them consecutively in the second half,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “A lot of times that will come back and bite you, but our defense rose to the occasion and made the most of it. We’re really fortunate that those guys were able to come through for us.”

Last season, the Packers finished a surprising ninth in points allowed. It was their first top-10 finish since ranking second in the 2010 championship season.

How good can this unit get? That’s the championship-level question.

While Jaire Alexander and Kenny Clark are dominant players, too many mediocre players are asked to play too many snaps for the unit to ever become a true power. Between Krys Barnes, Kamal Martin and Christian Kirksey, do the Packers have one difference-making inside linebacker? Will Amos and Darnell Savage ever become a top tandem at safety? Montravius Adams and Dean Lowry were stout against the Texans’ running game but can they be that good against the Vikings’ and 49ers’ explosive rushing attacks the next couple weeks?

Of course, is the offense scores 30-plus points, the defense doesn’t have to be a power. It just needs to continue its slow and steady positive trajectory for this team to be a force in January. Those next two tests – a rematch against Minnesota, with the Vikings coming off a bye, and at San Francisco – will provide a good gauge on the championship worthiness of this defense.