LANDOVER, Md. – If the Packers wanted a look at what their defense can be, the second half of Sunday's 31-17 loss in Washington provided a glimpse of the unit's potential.
Green Bay allowed only 63 total yards of offense, including only six passing yards, and three combined first downs in the final two quarters.
The problem was how the Packers started the game. Behind veteran quarterback Alex Smith and running back Adrian Peterson, Washington racked up 323 total yards in the first half and went 3-for-3 on third down to seize control early.
All five of Washington's explosive plays of 20 yards of more came in those first two quarters, which was enough to secure a 28-10 halftime lead it didn't look back from.
The difference between the two halves wasn't difficult for veteran cornerback Tramon Williams to decipher.
"Because we decided to play more consistent and play together," Williams said. "Guys were where they were supposed to be in the second half. Things weren't open like they shouldn't have been open in the first half. We did it the second half. It's a growing process, I guess."
The game started rocky for the Packers' defense, which gave up a 46-yard touchdown pass from Smith to receiver Paul Richardson on the opening possession and then garnered three defensive pass interference penalties on a 10-play drive that ended with a 2-yard Adrian Peterson touchdown run.
Perhaps the most frustrating series came in the second quarter, though. After punter JK Scott and gunner Marquez Valdes-Scantling pinned Washington back at its own 2, Smith converted twice on third-down situations to push the ball down the field on an eight-play, 98-yard scoring drive.
When the Packers' offense answered with a 64-yard touchdown pass to Geronimo Allison, Washington again countered with its own explosive play – a 50-yard pass to tight end Vernon Davis – to set up Peterson's second touchdown run of the first half. Peterson finished with 19 carries for 120 yards.
"You can't give up explosive plays to guys like Adrian Peterson and those guys," said defensive lineman Kenny Clark, who led Green Bay's defense with nine tackles. "When you're playing a good team that can score and have dynamic players, you can't put yourself in a hole."
The tide turned for Green Bay's defense after halftime, forcing a three-and-out on its first series. In fact, the only first down the Packers relinquished on Washington's first four series of the second half was a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty on linebacker Clay Matthews on his sack of Smith.
It was the third consecutive week Matthews has been flagged for roughing the passer. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the six-time Pro Bowler received that penalty only four times combined in his first nine NFL seasons.
Matthews said he tried to keep his arms out when they fell to the ground to avoid falling on Smith with the full weight of his body, but the flag came out anyway.
"Obviously I don't agree with it again," Matthews said. "Obviously when you're tackling a guy from the front, you're going to land on him. I understand the spirit of the rule. I said that weeks prior. When you have a hit like that, that's a football player. I even went up to Alex Smith after the game and asked him, 'What do you think, what can I do differently?' Because that's a football play."
The Packers' defense bounced back from the penalty to force another punt. In the end, Washington managed only one 35-yard Dustin Hopkins field goal in the second half, but the damage was done.
"We've got to start better," Matthews said. "It gets back to the basics, and I'm not sure there's much we can change because you see one half how well we can play, and you see another half we give up too much. We've just got to put a full game together."
The Packers had to weather a few injuries Sunday. Already playing without starting cornerback Kevin King (groin), Green Bay lost veteran defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson to an ankle injury and linebacker Nick Perry was being evaluated for a concussion at the end of the game.
The Packers know they must rebound quickly with the Buffalo Bills building momentum for next Sunday's matchup at Lambeau Field after routing Minnesota 27-6.
"We have to be better. We will be better and it starts with this upcoming week," Williams said. "We have a good Buffalo team coming in here and we have to get ready for those guys."