Packers rally, defense stiffens to beat Panthers
By Bob McGinn, Journal-Sentinel
~Charlotte, N.C. – Defense in the National Football League really is about points and takeaways, not yards.
It’s also about how a defense performs when the opponents have penetrated to its 20-yard line and beyond.
On 26 plays Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, the Dom Capers-coordinated defense of the Green Bay Packers lined up in the so-called “red zone” against the Carolina Panthers. The fact that the Panthers scored touchdowns on just two of their six red-zone trips loomed large in Green Bay’s 30-23 victory.
“Two weeks in a row our defense has stood up big in adversity situations,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Red zone, fourth down. As long as we do that, we’re going to be fine. The other things are correctable.”
Ten days ago against New Orleans, the Saints were inside the Green Bay 20 five times and scored merely one touchdown. When the Packers turned back Mark Ingram at the 1 on the final play of the game, they survived, 42-34.
Carolina made it to the red zone six times. In fact, the Panthers made it all the way inside the 5 on all six of those possessions.
Thus, the Packers have allowed three touchdowns in 11 red-zone opportunities, or merely 27.3%.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” said Carolina coach Ron Rivera, a defensive coordinator by trade. “They’re a hell of a football team, and they’re a very well-coached football team. You look at the red zone, and their play was outstanding as a defense. That speaks very well of what they did as a defensive staff.”
After scoring early on a 3-yard fade to Brandon LaFell against Jarrett Bush, the Panthers were back at the Green Bay 11 just a moment later. Morgan Burnett defended a high pass from Cam Newton to tight end Greg Olsen, and then Desmond Bishop and Charles Woodson wrestled down Jonathan Stewart just short of a first down.
Instead of trailing, 14-0, the Packers were down by 10 after Olindo Mare’s field goal.
“You’ve got to play your defense and your responsibility,” Burnett said. “But any time a team gets close to the goal line you’ve got to sell out. You basically do about anything, by any means necessary, to try to stop them from crossing your line.”
Later in the first quarter, the Panthers had a first down at the Green Bay 3. After a holding penalty on tackle Jordan Gross, Clay Matthews tackled Stewart for minus-2 and then Newton threw two incompletions against what appeared to be zone coverage.
“We played just a little zone coverage in the red zone,” cornerback Sam Shields said. “In the red zone, you’ve got to buckle down and stop that from being a touchdown.”
Early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers marched to first down at the Green Bay 8. On second and 5, Legedu Naanee was wide open on a pivot route against Shields but Newton’s pass missed badly. It helps to be lucky, too.
“Bad eyes to the quarterback,” Shields said. “I was looking inside. He came in quick, then went out. Just a technique thing. That’s something I’ve got to work on starting Wednesday.”
When Shields had strong coverage on a third-down misfire to Naanee, Mare had to kick another field goal.
Behind by a touchdown at 23-16, Newton completed three passes in a row for 68 yards and a first down at the Green Bay 12. Disdaining a field goal, Rivera and coordinator Rob Chudzinski tried four passes in a row.
On two of them, Matthews and Burnett chased Newton out of bounds for minimal sacks sandwiched around a 9-yard completion to LaFell. On fourth down from the 6, Newton couldn’t pull the trigger and was dragged down by Matthews at the 3.
“Everything happens a little bit faster in the red zone,” said Bush. “Holes close a little bit faster. The reactions have to be faster. The ball’s coming quick. The rush needs to get in there. A great defense has to be able to respond when your back is to the wall.”
Newton’s inexperience played into the Packers’ hands in the red zone. With the field compressed and the threat of a go route mute, it fell on the rookie to find a tight window for a score. He never did.
“Red-zone offense is about timing . . . about technique,” Rivera said. “Unfortunately, we just have not had an opportunity to develop that.
“We got field goals when we could have had touchdowns. That was great (for the Packers) because their defense kept them in position until their offense was able to make a few plays.”
Capers wasn’t quoted because McCarthy isn’t allowing his coordinators to be interviewed after games this season.