GREEN BAY – Since halftime of the Week 3 game at Washington, the Green Bay Packers have played some pretty solid defense.
Continuing it, and perhaps taking the next step, will require two things – limiting penalties and generating more turnovers.
Penalties have been a problem in all three phases for the Packers, but looking strictly at the defense – and setting aside all the roughing-the-passer hullabaloo from the season's first three games – there's been a shift from the combative penalties to the disciplinary ones.
In the first half at Washington three weeks ago, a series of pass interference and defensive holding calls contributed to some early scoring drives that dug a hole. Those haven't been as prevalent lately, but last week at Detroit personal fouls for a facemask and taunting were awfully costly, as was a silly offside call.
Of the three phases, penalties on defense are generally the most damaging, regardless of the type, because they often result in fresh sets of downs for the offense. Those miscues also can undercut the good plays a defense is otherwise making that could change a contest.
"Anytime you're high in numbers in penalties, it definitely will affect the game," veteran cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Against Detroit, we just hurt ourselves.
"We have to stop beating ourselves up with all the penalties. Those things take momentum from you. Once those things stop happening, I think you'll see a totally different team."
Nothing is better at generating momentum than turnovers, but simply put the Packers aren't getting enough. During their current run over the last 10 quarters, when opposing offenses have gained just 472 total yards, Green Bay has just three takeaways, all in the shutout of Buffalo in Week 4.
Turnovers are tricky, though, because if players focus on them too much, it can cause problems. Go for a strip instead of a solid tackle, and the ball carrier can get away. Guess where and when the quarterback is throwing the ball and a blown assignment can lead to a big play.
There's a balance to be found, playing sound defense while generating opportunities to get the ball back.
"As far as making tackles, you have to make it more of a gang tackle, where you hold a guy up and go for the strip attempt," Williams said. "We haven't been doing that as much as we should. Interception opportunities haven't been there a lot, but you can't go chasing it."
Williams said the coaching staff showed the defense a lot of film of turnover plays from around the league to make a point. The majority of interceptions came off of "bad balls" by the quarterback, which usually were a result of a hit or pressure or disrupted timing.
"Nobody went chasing anything," Williams said. "There were only a few that guys actually went and just made a play and you go, 'Ah, good play by him.'
"We have to keep that mentality we have to be fundamentally sound, and they'll come to us."
In other words, it'll be a team effort, when the pressure up front affects the QB and/or gets the ball out. Then it's up to whoever is near the ball to make the play on it.
It should help that the Packers' secondary is on its way back to full health. Cornerback Kevin King returned to the field last week, and fellow corners Jaire Alexander and Bashaud Breeland, along with safety Jermaine Whitehead, are practicing this week after missing the Detroit game.
"You see the opportunities," outside linebacker Clay Matthews said of Monday night's opponent, the 49ers, who have 11 giveaways on offense this season. "Getting the ball out, whether it be off the quarterback, running back, receiver, whatever it is, we need to find a way to do that."
It could go a long way toward putting together the type of defensive efforts the Packers will need when they return from their bye, with the high-flying Rams and future Hall of Fame QB Tom Brady on the road in back-to-back weeks.
But first up is a San Francisco squad with a backup quarterback in C.J. Beathard that may be forced to play a backup running back as well if Matt Breida's ankle injury doesn't improve in time.
"We're not going to label this a must-win game, but we've got to get this," Matthews said. "We have to prove something to ourselves."