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Packers' red-zone defense responds in win over Panthers

Defense feels like it’s getting closer to where it wants to be

Packers CB Kevin King scoops up a loose ball in the second quarter of Green Bay's 24-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
Packers CB Kevin King scoops up a loose ball in the second quarter of Green Bay's 24-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

GREEN BAY – The Packers' offense has its "gold zone," the final 20 yards before paydirt where Aaron Rodgers and his cohorts have turned lengthy drives into touchdowns this year.

While Green Bay's defense doesn't do any cool Austin Powers celebrations for defending what's traditionally been referred to as the red zone, it has placed an equally heavy emphasis on how it performs in that area of the field as of late.

After coming into their Week 15 matchup against Carolina ranked 28th in red-zone defense (allowing the opposition TDs on 67.5% of its appearances), the Packers held their ground in limiting Carolina to just one touchdown in five red-zone trips during Saturday night's 24-16 triumph at Lambeau Field.

"We gotta be resilient down there," safety Adrian Amos said. "That's something we've been working to improve on is our red-zone defense, keeping them out and holding them to three or getting takeaways down there. I just think we executed."

Saturday night's game with the Panthers was decided inside the red zone. Offensively, the Packers went a perfect 3-of-3 (all in the first half), while Carolina scored a TD on just one of his five trips inside the Packers' 20.

The Panthers surrendered one opportunity to score by kicking a field goal on first down late in the game to preserve time, but two previous field goals and a crucial turnover stood as impressive work in the victory.

In what turned out to be a defining moment of the game, Packers rookie linebacker Krys Barnes slapped the ball out of the hands of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on an attempted first-and-goal sneak at the Green Bay 1-yard line with 7 minutes, 39 seconds left in the first half.

The ball ricocheted backwards and was eventually recovered by cornerback Kevin King, who returned it 48 yards. Seven plays later, Packers running back Aaron Jones punched the ball in the end zone on an 8-yard touchdown run.

Instead of what could have been a 14-10 game, Green Bay entered halftime up 21-3.

"That's just a great play by '5-1' getting the ball out," Amos said, referring to Barnes' jersey number. "Quarterbacks usually try to do that – reach the ball over the goal line. That was quick thinking to get the ball out. That's a big play. That saves points."

Barnes, who finished with six tackles before leaving in the second half with an eye injury, has continued to take on more responsibility in Green Bay's defense for his communication skills as the Mike linebacker and his take-no-prisoners tackling.

It wasn't just the rookie Barnes. Amos also broke up a pass intended for Panthers receiver Robby Anderson in the end zone on second-and-goal early in the fourth quarter. Carolina would eventually have to settle for a 22-yard Joey Slye field goal, one of three kicks the Panthers attempted inside the red zone.

Overall, the defense had one of its most complete showings of the season, with Carolina scoring just three points on its first six offensive possessions. Meanwhile, Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith and Amos all registered sacks.

Lambeau Field hosted a Week 15 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.

The Panthers had a chance to tie the game late. Down eight, Carolina got the ball back at its own 20-yard line with 55 seconds left but defensive lineman Kingsley Keke quickly pressured Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater into taking an intentional grounding penalty on first down.

Bridgewater got 11 yards back on a quick pass to running back Rodney Smith but saw his third- and fourth-down passes fall incomplete. Still, there's little question where everything started for Green Bay's defense Saturday night.

"I think they were 1-for-5 in the red zone. That's winning football right there," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "They've done that over the last couple years, been really stout in the red zone but tonight was extra special. I think it is a confidence game."

As good as Saturday's win felt, Amos and the rest of the defense understand they're going to be in for an even bigger test next Sunday night when the Packers welcome the Tennessee Titans and 1,500-yard running back Derrick Henry to Lambeau Field.

At the same time, the Packers feel like they're rounding into form defensively as they've quietly snuck into the top 10 in total defense with two regular-season games to go.

"I think we're getting closer and closer to playing our best," said Amos, who finished with seven tackles, three breakups and his second sack of the year. "This is the time in the season where you want to start playing your best ball leading into the playoffs, getting that momentum into the playoffs and being stout on defense. Because that's what matters a lot at the end of the season, playoff time, how your defense is playing."

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