GREEN BAY – Aside from generating more turnovers, if there's one thing that'll help the Packers' defense the most, it's continuing to get stops in the red zone.
Twice in the fourth quarter last week, Houston was in that make-or-break area of the field – not just inside the 20, but inside the 10 in these cases. Both times, the Packers kept them out of the end zone on key third downs from the 8-yard line, first via an Adrian Amos sack on a blitz, and then with an open-field tackle for loss by rookie safety Vernon Scott.
The two field goals the Texans settled for kept the Packers in control. A 28-7 game turned into a 28-13 contest rather than possibly a 28-21 nail-biter with all the momentum in Houston's favor.
"I think we're headed in the right direction with that," defensive tackle Kenny Clark said of the red-zone work. "We took a hard look at ourselves this past week and just figured out what we need to do and how we can make this defense better. It showed when we played the Texans. We just have to keep building off that.
"We made some critical stops in that game."
The Packers arguably had three red-zone stops last week, halting Houston in the first half just outside the 20 – the Texans had a first down on the 21, went backwards due to a penalty, and ended up a missing a 41-yard field goal.
The overall effort altered a trend that was looking problematic for the Packers.
Prior to last week, Green Bay had allowed touchdowns on 13-of-17 opponent red-zone trips, or 76.5%, which ranked 29th in the NFL. The official statistics had Houston 2-for-4, putting the Packers now at 71.4% and climbing five spots in the league rankings to a tie for 24th.
That may not seem like much, but the margins in the NFL are small. Another 5% improvement on the year would put the Packers in the top 20 league-wide, a far cry from 29th.
Those stops go hand-in-hand with third-down defense, of course, and the previous week at Tampa Bay the Packers had three third-down opportunities over a span of two red-zone possessions and didn't win any of them. The Buccaneers scored TDs on both drives and started to pull away in the game.
It may be difficult for the Packers to get back to where they were last year – tied for 6th at 50% over 16 games – but they need to make the effort in Houston the new standard moving forward.
"You feel good. You're taking points off the board," Amos said. "That's the name of the game, especially when they already have the ball in your territory you want to limit them. You save four points by making them kick a field goal. You save seven when you get a takeaway.
"So those are just big opportunities to step up and show up."
Head Coach Matt LaFleur couldn't pinpoint anything specific that makes a defense tougher in the red zone, but he said employing "different looks" in those situations, which defensive coordinator Mike Pettine did last week, can challenge an offense to execute.
"I think 'Pett's' done a nice job of mixing calls, which always is a little bit tougher for offenses when they're not quite sure what you're going to do," LaFleur said. "It's hard to just solely focus on a certain coverage, front, whatever it may be. I just think we've taken that kind of approach."
The two fourth-quarter stops in Houston were examples of that.
On the big sack by Amos, Pettine blitzed with a seven-man pressure – a rare call – and even with a seven-man protection QB Deshaun Watson was sacked. On Scott's third-down tackle, a standard four-man rush was backed up by seven defenders in coverage, and Watson took the checkdown in the flat.
The defense in essence put the game away with a fourth-down stop near midfield on the Texans' next possession, another key moment that was stacked on top of the red-zone success. The entire unit seemed to feed off of standing tall with its back against the wall, so to speak, and now it needs to show it can respond in those situations in the coming weeks.
"Our defense came to play and answered the bell when this football needed them the most," LaFleur said of last week's contest. "I'm excited about just the trajectory our defense is on but again, you're only as good as your last game, so you've got to continue to put forth that effort each and every day, and we've got to get better."