Packers defense great at limiting big plays but struggling in red zone to start 2021

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The five-game sample size to start 2021 paints the Green Bay Packers defense as one of the best at limiting big plays but arguably the worst at preventing touchdowns in the red zone.

One probably matters more than the other.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur said Wednesday that “stats are for losers.” He clarified Thursday, stating his team uses stats extensively, but stats are only pieces of information, and understanding the “why” behind them is more important. It’s a smart point.

Here’s what the stats say: The Packers are second in the NFL at limiting big plays but last in red-zone defense entering Week 6.

Joe Barry’s defense has allowed only 11 plays over 20 yards, which is tied for second-fewest overall and just three plays behind the NFL-leading Buffalo Bills. Limiting big plays is an increasingly important part of playing defense in today’s NFL, and a foundational aspect of the way Barry wants to run his defense. He wants offenses to be forced to go the length of the field without making a series-killing mistake. More often than not, the mistake happens.

So far, 10 of the 11 plays over 20 yards allowed by the Packers so far this season have been passing plays, including three touchdown passes over 40 yards. The other was a scramble by Jared Goff.

Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase dinged the Packers for three plays over 20 yards, so maybe the defense is trending in the wrong direction. His 70-yard catch to end the half last Sunday is the longest play given up by the Packers this season.

However, four of the 11 plays happened in the second half of games where the outcome was already pretty much decided.

Understanding the “why” behind a few of the big plays is important, too.

Chase’s touchdown was the result of a failed defensive check, which gave Burrow almost nine seconds to find Chase streaking across the field, and even then, Darnell Savage had a real shot at creating a turnover. Diontae Johnson’s 45-yard touchdown against the coverage of Jaire Alexander might have been aided by a slight push-off. Quintez Cephus hit a 46-yard play on an extended play. James Washington created a 30-yard play against fifth-string cornerback Isaac Yiadom with the Packers up 17 points.

Overall, the Packers are giving up only 6.7 yards per pass this season, a reflection of the down-to-down success of the group but also the elimination of big plays. Opponent completions are gaining only 9.9 yards on average, the fourth-best mark in the NFL.

If only the Packers’ red zone defense could get things figured out.

Through five games, opponents are 13-for-13 scoring touchdowns in the red zone against the Packers defense. No other team has failed to get a stop inside the red zone this season.

Twice, an opponent has scored a touchdown in the red zone to either take the lead or tie the game in the fourth quarter. The 49ers got a late go-ahead touchdown on a short pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk in Week 3, and the Bengals tied the game on a touchdown run by Joe Mixon and two-point conversion from Joe Mixon to Tee Higgins late in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

Tackling issues and simple coverage breakdowns have contributed to the failures in the red zone.

Stopping the offense inside the 20-yard line and turning seven points into three points is important. Teams track red-zone success rates closely because it’s a big part of situational football.

Here’s the good news, however: Opponents have only been inside the red zone on the Packers 13 times. That’s tied for the fifth-fewest in the NFL after five games.

This is important to know because it highlights why teams want to limit big plays. The opposition isn’t hitting explosive plays against the Packers, and explosive plays are so important for creating scoring drives and opportunities. The Packers’ success limiting big plays is helping limit trips to the red zone in a big way.

Barry’s defense needs to get better in the red zone, but the success rate inside the 20-yard line won’t matter as much if teams are consistently struggling to get there.

Keep preventing big plays, and get marginally better in the red zone, and the Packers defense has a winning equation for the rest of 2021.

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