Packers defense: Two wins, too many yards

The Packers' secondary has allowed over 400 yards passing in back-to-back weeks. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Through two games this season, opponents have smoked the Green Bay Packers' defense at a record pace. No one around the team seems concerned about it. Should they be?

I suppose there are any number of reasonable answers to that question. But as we stand here on Sept. 20, it seems the Packers would do themselves more harm by overreacting to allowing a pair of 400-yard passing games in as many weeks. Over time, most NFL teams would accept big yardage totals as long as it's balanced by the kind of red zone defense the Packers have played so far this season.

There is a measure of risk involved with expecting a defense to tighten routinely on key plays, but coach Mike McCarthy said that what he calls "adversity play" is "the strength of our team right now. That’s why we’re 2-0. We’ve stepped up two weeks in a row when it’s counted, but we definitely have a lot of work to do."

Yes, Carolina Panthers rookie Cam Newton lit up the Packers for 432 yards last Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. That performance came a week after Drew Brees logged 419 yards for the New Orleans Saints. Even in a pass-happy league, as the chart shows, the Packers defense ranks near the bottom of the NFL in yardage, points allowed and third-down conversion rate.

Yet the Packers have managed to win on both occasions thanks literally to a handful of important plays. They’ve allowed only three touchdowns on 11 opponent trips to the red zone, a touchdown percentage of 27.3 that ranks third in the NFL. They also rank near the top of the league in takeaways (five) and sacks (seven).

That’s why McCarthy seemed comfortable with the situation, and that’s why you heard linebacker Clay Matthews say: "I don’t think we’re concerned." Cornerback Charles Woodson told reporters that the Packers "definitely have a lot of things to clean up," but expressed full confidence that they would.

The Packers are now down two starters from their Super Bowl team, having lost defensive end Cullen Jenkins via free agency and safety Nick Collins to a neck injury. Jenkins’ expected replacement, Mike Neal, had knee surgery earlier this month and will miss a significant amount of the season. Cornerback Tramon Williams, meanwhile, is rehabilitating a shoulder injury that kept him out of the Panthers game.

But those developments, along with the on-field performance in Weeks 1 and 2, are causing only a mild reaction among the football people I trust. Matt Williams of Scouts Inc. cited mitigating factors in both cases.

"It’s been a little worrisome," Williamson said. "Tramon Williams being out was a huge part of it this past week, though. … I didn't worry too much against the Saints. Brees will do that to everyone. This past weekend opened my eyes a little, but I’m not yet officially concerned."

Williamson did question whether second-year cornerback Sam Shields, who excelled as a nickelback last season, would be ready to handle a larger role if Williams’ injury lingers. And he also brought up an important point: After Jenkins’ departure, do the Packers have enough pass-rushers to complement Matthews?

I’m sure the Packers are hoping that defensive lineman B.J. Raji will pick up much of Jenkins’ slack, and linebacker Erik Walden has proved an aggressive pass-rusher off the edge. Raji and Walden each have a sack this season, but obviously the sample size is small.

In reality, you can point to three series of plays that ensured the Packers’ 2-0 record:

  1. Stopping Saints running back Mark Ingram at the goal line on the final play of Week 1.

  2. Limiting the Panthers to a field goal after they had first-and-10 at the 11-yard line on their second possession Sunday.

  3. Again holding the Panthers to a field goal after facing first-and-goal at the 8-yard line in the fourth quarter.

Had the Saints or Panthers scored a touchdown on any of those possessions, the Packers could have at least faced an overtime situation. You don’t want to play with such a thin margin of error, but everything that has happened is "correctable" McCarthy said, and "are things we can adjust to."

An unofficial poll via Twitter this week suggested you are nervous but nowhere near panic. @Jacobklossner noted the Packers are "finding ways to win" but wondered: "How long does that last?" @Elvin1983 is "mildly alarmed with the secondary" and thinks the red zone defense has been called on "too often."

What exactly has happened? I don’t think it can be traced to one or two factors. But I do think the Panthers’ opening drive Sunday was a nice illustration of where the Packers have been vulnerable at least to this point.

In completing six of seven passes, Newton capitalized on two personnel advantages. First, the Panthers' abundance of tight ends forced Matthews to drop into coverage twice and sit on the line of scrimmage on a third play. Matthews hit Newton after one throw, but Newton smartly threw to the area Matthews vacated for an 18-yard play to tight end Jeremy Shockey. And on a screen pass to running back Jonathan Stewart, Matthews slipped at the snap. He got up in time to chase down Stewart from behind, but not before a 19-yard gain.

Second, the Panthers had a rare strength advantage against cornerback Charles Woodson. Veteran receiver Steve Smith escaped contact on two occasions to get open for passes of 15 and 12 yards. I guess it’s possible that Woodson’s coverage skills have slipped, but generally speaking, I don’t think there are many NFL receivers who are strong enough to escape Woodson the way Smith did.

That said, I think it’s worth tracking Williamson’s point about the Packers’ pass rush. Matthews obviously can’t do it all on his own. But given what we know about their defensive personnel and coaching staff, it’s reasonable to believe the Packers will level themselves out. You might consider that unjustified cover for a group in crisis, but I consider it a deserved benefit of the doubt.