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The Packers defense seemed ready to let the Saints take over, but somehow managed to help the team pull off a close win in Green Bay on Sunday.
Defense in review
I think the title says it all. The Packers' defense looked like they were going to fall apart against Drew Brees, Marques Colston, and company, but they somehow made a couple of key stops late in the game that allowed Green Bay to escape with a one-point win.
I was frankly a little stunned to see that the Saints only converted 9 of their 17 third down attempts. It seemed like Colston and Jimmy Graham were constantly picking apart the Packers' zone coverages on third and long. It didn't seem like the pass rush was getting a consistent push on Drew Brees, as Clay Matthews and company were stymied for much of the game. However, Matthews did have a key sack in the second half, and C.J. Wilson got into the act with one of his own. Unfortunately, neither of them forced a drive to stall, as Brees converted a third-and-long after Matthews' sack and later a fourth down after Wilson's.
Maybe the worst offender in zone coverage, however, was Sam Shields, who got mixed up with Morgan Burnett. After the Graham Harrell fumble, that miscommunication was all it took for the Saints to grab a 24-21 lead, as Shields expected to get safety help over the top. Burnett instead went to cover Jimmy Graham on a deep crossing route, leaving Joseph Morgan wide open behind Shields, who caught Morgan from behind but tried to strip the ball instead of wrapping him up, allowing him to break the tackle and get into the end zone.
The Packers' run defense looked very solid, however, holding the Saints' stable of running backs to only 45 yards on 19 carries. The defensive line held the point well, and consistently left the runners without holes to slip through. While the Saints aren't built as a running team, it was encouraging to see the run defense play so well after struggling in earlier games.
Ultimately, the defense made some key stops late in the game that forced field goal attempts. First, they made a strong goal-line stand on the first drive of the second half that forced the Saints to come away with three points instead of seven. That stand came immediately after B.J. Raji was flagged for a personal foul on an earlier field goal attempt, and the defense's response was definitely a positive to build on. Later in the game, the defense held in the red zone again to force another field goal, and they were bailed out by a Darren Sproles drop on third down that forced Garrett Hartley's potential go-ahead field goal (more on that shortly).
All in all, the old "bend but don't break" cliche applies to the defense's performance pretty well. They allowed touchdowns on the Saints' first two trips inside the red zone, but buckled down in the second half by only giving up field goals. Compared to the Saints' defense, who allowed four red zone touchdowns, that may well have been the difference in the game.
Special teams - Coverage review
If the fumble by Darren Sproles had been called correctly on the field, this would have been a major point of emphasis. Instead, the Packers' coverage units merely held Sproles at bay instead of forcing a major mistake that would have given the offense a chance to seal the game. All told, Sproles returned three kicks for 91 yards and one punt for 4 yards, which implies a solid performance all around by the coverage teams.
I have to also mention the holding penalty on the Saints' first go-ahead field goal attempt late in the game. Sam Shields, while maligned for his play on defense, drew a holding penalty on tight end David Thomas that was called appropriately, negating Garrett Hartley's field goal. Thankfully, giving five yards back on an encroachment penalty on the second attempt didn't cost the Packers, as Hartley missed from 48 and let the Packers' offense run out the clock.