GREEN BAY – For weeks, coordinator Joe Barry and the rest of the Packers' defense have been asked about how the unit has performed inside the red zone early this season.
On Sunday, the Packers offered an emphatic retort.
Green Bay's defense reigned supreme inside the 20-yard line during the team's 24-10 win over the Washington Football Team at Lambeau Field, keeping the opposition out of the end zone on four straight red-zone possessions to close the game.
The first two stops were the most critical, as both forced Washington to turn the ball over on downs inside the Packers' 5-yard line. The third ended with a Chandon Sullivan interception before Green Bay finally conceded a field goal on the fourth.
It was the type of showing Green Bay's fifth-ranked defense was looking for after the opposition scored touchdowns on its first 15 trips inside the Packers' red zone through the first six games of the year.
"It was huge. It definitely played a huge part in the game," said linebacker De'Vondre Campbell when asked about the four red-zone stops in the second half. "Everybody knows that we've been struggling a little bit in the red zone so that definitely was a point of emphasis coming in, making sure that we can get that part of our game going.
"I think today was definitely a step in the right direction."
Behind scrambling quarterback Taylor Heinicke, Washington posted 430 total yards against the Packers and won the time of possession (32:54-27:06).
However, Green Bay countered with sound situational defense and big plays. The second half began with linebacker Rashan Gary responding to the challenge presented to him by Campbell to step up in the absence of veteran Preston Smith, who missed his first NFL game in six-plus seasons with an oblique injury.
On the second play of the third quarter, Gary sacked Heinicke and forced a fumble, which defensive lineman Dean Lowry recorded at the Washington 27-yard line. Three plays later, quarterback Aaron Rodgers turned the takeaway into points with a 20-yard touchdown to Robert Tonyan to give Green Bay its first two-possession lead.
Washington charged back behind Heinicke, who appeared to score on a third-and-goal scramble with 6 minutes, 3 seconds left in the third quarter. Upon further review, however, the officials deemed that Heinicke's knee had touched the ground before the ball crossed the plane of the end zone.
Washington chose to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 but Campbell thwarted Heinicke's sneak attempt, forcing a fumble (that Heinicke corralled) before Gary stopped him for Green Bay's first red-zone stop of the year.
"When you're in goal-line situations … we know what's about to come," Gary said. "We all were playing QB sneak. That was just the mindset, just making sure he doesn't cross. Our mindset this week as a defense was just to get better in the red zone. I feel we've done that this week, just step by step and series by series."
Washington again threatened on its next possession despite fumbling twice (and recovering) on its first four plays. But once again the drive produced no points after Washington went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Green Bay 3 and safety Adrian Amos batted down a pass intended for tight end Ricky Seals-Jones.
After Mason Crosby's 39-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter, Washington worked the ball down to the Packers' 12 before Sullivan picked off a third-and-8 pass in the end zone that was intended for Adam Humphries.
Lambeau Field hosted a Week 7 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Washington Football Team on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.
Washington ventured back into the Packers' red zone one last time after an AJ Dillon fumble gave away the ball at the Green Bay 37, but Washington was forced to settle for a 45-yard Chris Blewitt field goal with 2:30 left in regulation after Kingsley Keke was in on two sacks of Heinicke over the span of three plays to make it fourth-and-goal from the 27.
All told, the Packers held Washington to 0-for-4 inside the red zone and 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations. They also did so with Smith and cornerback Kevin King inactive, and All-Pros Za'Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander on injured reserve.
"Coach Joe B. has obviously done a fantastic job," receiver Allen Lazard said. "Anytime you can hold an offense to 10 points, man, that's a great game. Obviously, you can't really do that without forcing turnovers, coming up big in the red zone.
"I think our defense has steadily grown into their identity of who they are today and they continue to grow and they're figuring out their roles. … Today was a great day for them."
The Packers now face a quick turnaround against one of the league's most potent offensive units in the Arizona Cardinals, who rank inside the top 10 in most major offensive categories.
Green Bay's defense is feeling good about itself, as well.
"We're just getting more comfortable with each other. That's huge when you go out there on defense," said Campbell, who finished with a game-high 13 tackles and two forced fumbles. "Us being on the same page and being able to communicate and figure things out, that's definitely been a huge part of us taking a step forward.
"We're missing lot of key players. As we continue to get people back, we're going to keep striving for excellence and continue to try to get better and better every week."