GREEN BAY – The push for a steady, reliable level of play continues for the Packers' defense.
Sunday's 31-24 victory at Detroit was another mixed bag of results, a hodge-podge of good and bad that makes it hard to gauge just where the unit is now that the stretch run is underway.
Against the Lions, the ups and downs continued.
On the one hand, the defense produced four sacks in the first half, had a third straight solid outing against the run, got a three-and-out to start the second half that Head Coach Matt LaFleur called "absolutely critical" in helping the Packers take a two-score lead, and held up in the red zone to force a late field goal after the kickoff coverage unit allowed a long return.
On the other, Green Bay gave up points on the opponent's first possession for the fourth time in five games, got burned by multiple screen passes on a second-quarter TD drive, and surrendered four automatic first downs via penalty on a fourth-quarter TD drive that kept the Lions in the game. The Packers handed them five first downs via penalty in all and also had 12 men on the field twice, burning a timeout to save one flag.
"Definitely, the penalties were a concern," LaFleur said Monday. "You can't do those kind of things, especially on third downs, when you have an opportunity to get the ball back.
"It's just the consistency from our defense."
That's been the yearlong story as the NFC North champs look to figure out what they can hang their hat on to complement the league's highest-scoring offense.
The run defense will probably get the biggest test that next two games in prime time, as Carolina is hoping to get star Christian McCaffrey back from injury and Tennessee will bring league-leading rusher Derrick Henry to Lambeau Field.
Green Bay's run defense may have turned a corner of late. Since a rough outing at Indianapolis a month ago, the Packers have allowed only one big run, a 57-yarder to Chicago's David Montgomery on the Bears' first running play in Week 12.
Since that play over the last three games, opposing running backs have produced just 169 rushing yards on 43 carries, a 3.9 average. Detroit's backs gained just 45 on 14 attempts (3.2 avg.).
So it's trending in the right direction, but McCaffrey and Henry will make the Packers prove themselves soon enough.
"I thought our guys responded well," LaFleur said, regarding the recent emphasis on being more stout against the run. "Just the ability to swarm has been better. That way if a guy misses a tackle, you've got somebody there to clean it up.
"It's never going to be perfect. There's always going to be things to correct, and the biggest thing we have to do is make sure we're hard on ourselves, we're critical, and we're looking at everything that we can do to get better."
The negative trend of late is the opening drives. Until Sunday in Detroit, the points allowed out of the gate in recent games had all been field goals, but the Lions went 75 yards for a touchdown and only had to convert two third downs to do it.
The third snap of the game was a third-and-9, and the Packers' four-man rush didn't come close to bothering Lions QB Matthew Stafford, who sat back and waited for a receiver to break open. From there, Detroit's early script of plays encountered little resistance, leaving the Packers to wonder how to avoid getting schemed up early in games.
"Yeah, nobody wants that. It's frustrating," LaFleur said. "Every game plan is going to have a different strategy going into it, and certainly we've got to be better. We all recognize that and we know that. Bottom line is when you have them in third-and-9 on the first third down of the game, those are winnable downs for our defense and we've got to come through in those situations."
Having 12 men on the field is a communication issue amongst coaches and players that shouldn't be occurring at this stage, but it seems to result when players substitute in packages for injured players.
While that must get smoothed out, the good news in that regard is the Packers are getting more snaps from a couple of young defenders who could help down the stretch.
With safety Raven Greene on injured reserve and nickel cornerback Chandon Sullivan leaving the Lions game with a hip injury, rookie safety Vernon Scott took game reps at both deep safety and hybrid linebacker and held up well.
Also, fellow rookie Krys Barnes has returned to action from the reserve/COVID list to get work at inside linebacker, where he impressed early in the season before injuries and illness/exposure sidelined him.
"KB brings a physical presence," LaFleur said. "He certainly has great instincts, is able to communicate really well to make sure everyone else is doing their jobs, and that's what you love about him. He's just super-intelligent. He doesn't play like a rookie. He plays like a vet."