Making strides on defense, Packers still have areas to shore up

One big breakdown, red-zone woes marring progress since Week 1

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LB De'Vondre Campbell

GREEN BAY – Fully aware there's still plenty of work to do on defense, Head Coach Matt LaFleur likes the way that unit is trending for the Packers.

On Monday, LaFleur called the Cincinnati game the defense's best performance of the season to date. There were a number of reasons for that as the Packers held the Bengals to 367 yards in nearly five quarters, allowed just 5-of-14 third-down conversions, and generated two takeaways.

--Inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell continues to be a high-impact player.

Campbell tied for the team lead in tackles (eight), got his team-high second interception of the season on the first play of overtime, and continues to maintain a reliable leadership presence in the middle of the Packers' defense.

All this from a guy who signed just over four months ago.

"Dre has been outstanding," LaFleur said. "He's been so consistent, making plays, being physical, he's flying around the field. He's wearing the green dot so he's communicating with everybody."

--The rotational players up front more than held their own.

One series after the regulars forced a three-and-out in the second quarter, with Kenny Clark and Rashan Gary getting a tackle for loss on Joe Mixon and Preston Smith sacking Joe Burrow, the top group took a breather.

But there was no drop-off when Dean Lowry, rookie T.J. Slaton, Jonathan Garvin and La'Darius Hamilton rotated in as the front four. They helped get a three-and-out of their own, as Lowry and Slaton combined on a sack, and Lowry batted down his second pass of the game. The main group then returned on third down to force a Burrow scramble.

"I think we've done a better job up front in terms of our D-line, outside 'backers, of rotating those guys through so that our starters can stay fresh and get great effort on every play," LaFleur said.

--Rookie cornerback Eric Stokes isn't backing down.

Thrust into a more prominent role in the wake of second-team All-Pro Jaire Alexander's shoulder injury, Stokes spent most of Sunday guarding Bengals star rookie wideout Ja'Marr Chase and didn't make anything easy.

Chase got loose for the big 70-yard touchdown just before halftime on a widespread breakdown, but against Stokes, his best plays were on a couple of well-covered, perfectly thrown sideline passes that he contested like a veteran corner.

"He just brings it every time he comes out on the field, every play," LaFleur said of Green Bay's first-round draft pick. "He's got a short memory, whether it's good or bad, and I just love how he's challenging these receivers. He's making the offense earn everything they get."

LaFleur also lauded the play of fellow corner Kevin King, who was back after missing two games with a concussion, but eventually left with a shoulder injury. LaFleur noted King played a portion of the game "with basically one arm" before receiver Tyler Boyd tried to hurdle King near the Packers' sideline and created an awkward collision, leading to King's exit.

LaFleur didn't have an update on King, but the injuries at the position are a rising concern, though veteran Rasul Douglas is now in the fold to join Chandon Sullivan, Isaac Yiadom and rookie Shemar Jean-Charles as reinforcements.

"Anytime you're losing starters, that's never fun," LaFleur said, adding the reserves in which the team has placed confidence "are going to have to prove us right."

The other major concern is the red zone, where the Packers have yet to get a defensive stop in 13 opponent possessions. Given that, the defense allowing just 21 points per game since the Week 1 struggles both stands out as solid work, but could also be better.

LaFleur emphasized he has no objections to what defensive coordinator Joe Barry is doing schematically inside the 20-yard line. The plays are there for the players to make.

"It really comes down to making sure that everybody is doing their job," LaFleur said. "I've got no issue with what we called down there, but we didn't execute. You can't have nine guys doing their job if two guys aren't doing their job. Then it's going to be tough to stop anybody."

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