Packers see improvement on defense with room for more

That side of the ball a work in progress showing positive signs

CB Jaire Alexander, LB Ty Summers, and DL Montravius Adams

GREEN BAY – Ups and downs have characterized the Packers' defensive side of the ball through the first four games, and smoothing out those rough edges will be Green Bay's goal after the bye.

The most promising notion is the defense is taking a performance into its week off that most resembles the more reliable, consistent unit it was a year ago.

Monday night's effort was by no means the pinnacle, but holding the high-powered Falcons to 16 points was a good game's work.

The Packers contained the run – Atlanta averaged just 3.1 yards per carry on 25 rushes – and stood tall on a key red-zone possession early to force a field goal. They also held a dangerous 1-2 punch at receiver in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, though they weren't fully healthy, to minimal production.

Those elements combined with a return to form of a dominant Za'Darius Smith, who had three sacks and was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week, have the defense's arrow pointing up after riding a roller coaster the first three weeks.

"He's an inspiring player, an inspiring person, and he brings a lot of juice and energy," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said of Smith, who's now tied for the league lead with five sacks. "In order for us to perform at our best as a whole defense, he's got to be playing at a high level."

LaFleur referenced Smith being a little banged up and playing through some bumps and bruises in the early going, so the bye week will probably help him.

The same goes for defensive lineman Kenny Clark (groin), who has missed the last three games, and inside linebacker Christian Kirksey (pectoral), currently on injured reserve. Outside linebacker Rashan Gary (ankle) missed Monday's game, and the Packers also had multiple defenders leave the contest, including cornerbacks Chandon Sullivan (concussion) and Kevin King (quad), plus linebacker Krys Barnes (shoulder).

The injuries have forced larger snap loads on otherwise part-time players, such as Tyler Lancaster and Kingsley Keke on the defensive line; Barnes and Ty Summers at inside linebacker; Oren Burks, Randy Ramsey and Jonathan Garvin at outside linebacker; and Raven Greene and Will Redmond in the secondary.

The added experience of so much youth could pay dividends down the road, but in the more immediate realm, the Packers have two areas targeted for improvement – takeaways and tackling.

Green Bay has forced only three turnovers through four games, far off last year's full-season total of 25. Those are known to come in bunches, and there have been some opportunities that just haven't bounced the Packers' way.

Tackling is the greater concern, with the coaches charting double-digit misses in each of the last two games after a solid start in that phase. The sloppiness led to an explosive touchdown play last week in New Orleans and helped Atlanta keep a long, clock-draining drive alive Monday night.

"We've missed too many tackles and that's two games in a row where we've had quite a few," LaFleur said.

Added Smith: "I want to continue to harp on that – tackling and finishing in that run game is something we've got to clean up as a defense."

The defense's play was all over the map for the first few weeks, from allowing five straight touchdown drives spanning the fourth quarter of Week 1 and first quarter of Week 2, to scoring nine points on a safety and pick-six in those games, to following up shaky second and third quarters in New Orleans with a pair of huge fourth-quarter stops (including a key turnover).

Week 4 was a bit steadier, starting with back-to-back three-and-outs, not allowing a touchdown until the second half, and finally getting a fourth-down stop to prevent a late TD that would have made it a one-score game.

It's getting there. Smith called it "a building block," and LaFleur just wants to see that side of the ball "get incrementally better."

Given how the Packers' highly ranked offense is performing, that could go a long way.

"We've done a lot of good things," Alexander said. "We also had things that we need to work on. But it's a promising start and we're just going to continue on this path of ascension."

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