Too hyped too early? Packers' defense working on smoother starts

Green Bay was tough to score against on opening drives last year


GREEN BAY – There's reason to believe it'll get better.

The Packers' defense has not started either of its first two games well, allowing both the Vikings and the Lions to march the length of the field for touchdowns on their opening drives.

Detroit doubled its pleasure and did so on its second drive last week as well.

While Green Bay's defense has recovered from the sluggish starts to allow just three points in the second and third quarters combined through two games, the Packers proved last year they can be just as stout in the first quarter, lending belief to the notion they can nip this unwanted developing trend in the bud as soon as this Sunday in New Orleans.

"Obviously, we need to start fast," inside linebacker Christian Kirksey said. "We know what type of talent we've got on this defense.

"When we play together and we play fast, good things are happening. We just have to calm down and communicate a little bit better."

Head Coach Matt LaFleur attributed the slow start against Detroit to mental errors and misalignments. Kirksey referred to those as "correctables," and the statistics show they weren't problems in the early moments of games last year.

The Packers allowed only one touchdown on an opening drive last season, in Week 12 at San Francisco, and that almost shouldn't have counted. An offensive turnover put the ball on the 2-yard line for an easy 49ers score.

Even including that bit of misfortune, overall the Packers allowed just 19 points on opening drives in 18 games, including playoffs (one TD, four FGs). So 14 points in two games stands out as an anomaly for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's unit, which was integrating four new primary starters a year ago but just one, Kirksey, this season.

The challenge this week is they're facing their most potent opponent to date in the Saints, a team that hasn't found its groove on offense but one that can be hard to stop once it gets rolling.

Standing tall early on could go a long way Sunday night against Drew Brees & Co. If there's a game to live up to the "start fast" mantra on defense, this is it.

"We just can't allow big plays," outside linebacker Preston Smith said. "We've got to be more consistent with execution."

The Saints can certainly beat a defense over the top with star wideout Michael Thomas (if he returns from an ankle injury to play) or down the seam with tight end Jared Cook, but Brees is also known for getting the ball out quickly to his playmakers, who try to make short catches rupture into long yardage.

Running back Alvin Kamara can be as slippery as it gets in the open field, and he's a focal point for the defense wherever he lines up. The Packers have tackled fairly well through two games, with just a few misses here and there, but that proficiency will be tested by Kamara, almost certainly on the first possession of the game.

"Our guys are going to have to be flying to the football," LaFleur said. "They're going to have to gang tackle this guy, because he's going to make people miss. There's no doubt about it."

A strong start or poor start guarantees nothing, of course, and the Saints' first two games provide additional proof.

The Buccaneers stopped New Orleans on its first two drives in Week 1 but went on to give up 34 points and lost. The Raiders allowed 10 points on the Saints' first two drives this past Monday but only permitted 14 the rest of the game and came out on top.

Safety Adrian Amos mentioned Thursday that the Packers' defense is still forming its "identity" for 2020, which will reveal itself over the course of the season. Kirksey added, "We haven't gotten to the point of where we want to be."

There's still time for strong starts to return to this defense's foundation, even if last year's opening-drive stats are almost out of reach already.

"When we are glued into our assignments and we've got all 11 doing their responsibility, I think our defense is pretty good," LaFleur said. "We can't let it take a few drives before we get going."

The Packers defensively have settled in during the middle portions of games thus far. Having less to recover from would be another step in the right direction.

"If we can start the game, settle down, not be too edgy … with not having any fans, you have to bring your own kind of energy, but sometimes you can bring too much," safety Darnell Savage said. "So we've just got to find that balance. Hopefully this week we can start off strong and end strong too."

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