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Dougherty: Packers defense still has a lot to tackle after early soft showing

GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers oiled up their offense and picked up a much-needed win to rinse the stench from their regular-season opener.

But nobody who watched their 35-17 win over Detroit on Monday night is fooled by the score. Saying Joe Barry’s defense was better than last week against New Orleans, while true, is faint praise. It was a liability again.

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More: Aaron Jones, Aaron Rodgers come up big to lead Packers to 35-17 win over Lions

To put this game in perspective, really the NFL season is about three things: Piling up as many W's as possible by any means necessary; staying healthy, and improving as much as you can between September and January.

The Packers got the W on Monday night, and that matters most. The stats on 0-2 teams are pretty grim: According to NBC’s Sunday night broadcast, since 1999 only 12 percent of teams that started 0-2 made the playoffs.

There are no style points in this league, and the Packers have to feel good after watching last year’s top-scoring offense come to life in Week 2. Along with the 35 points, they put up 323 yards, got Aaron Jones going (115 total yards and four touchdowns), and received an Aaron Rodgers-type game from Aaron Rodgers (145.6 rating, 22-for-27 passing).

By all appearances, they got out of this one healthy, too.

But as for improving, they can only hope the learning curve for Joe Barry starts taking off soon. Because for the first half and into the third quarter, Barry’s side of the ball didn’t look any better than in the Packers’ disastrous opener.

Really, if Detroit hadn’t botched a fourth-down call in the third quarter, who knows how this game might have gone? The Lions blew their chance when down 21-17 and facing a fourth-and-1 at the Packers’ 25. Lions coach Dan Campbell made the right call going for it. He needed seven points, not three, to keep the heat on.

But the decision to throw a tough little out pass? Shocking. Why not spread out the defense and run? The Packers’ front seven had hardly made a play all night. It seemed like a gimme to run it and keep the drive alive. Instead, the Lions tried to jam a short pass to Quintez Cephus, who was covered fairly well by first-round pick Eric Stokes. Incomplete, and that was that. The Packers pulled away.

It’s awfully early to make big judgments, but the early signs make you wonder if the Packers are looking at another 2016. You might remember that as the run-the-table year where they won week after week down the stretch strictly by getting ahead early, piling on the points and helping their overmatched defense by always playing from the lead.

Barry’s defense, for its part, was fine Monday night once the Packers got up by two touchdowns. De’Vondre Campbell’s interception was exactly the kind of play that comes with playing from ahead.

But when the Lions weren’t forced to be one-dimensional, the Packers neither got much pressure on Jared Goff nor stopped the run. By halftime they’d given up two touchdowns and a field goal on four Lions possessions, which meant they’d made only three stops and allowed seven touchdowns in 12 possessions through the first six quarters of the season. That is not winning football.

They also caught a huge break when Goff fumbled a snap on the last play of the third quarter, just after rain started falling. It went down as a turnover forced, but it’s not like the Packers made a play.

The Packers clearly miss Za’Darius Smith, who landed on IR this week because of a back injury that sidelined him for all but one practice of training camp. He’ll miss at least three games, though it would hardly be a surprise if it ends up being more. The thought of going half the season or more without him must send a shiver down LaFleur’s spine.

Either way, the Packers need better from former first-round pick Rashan Gary and Preston Smith on the outside. Gary officially got a sack in the fourth quarter on a good bull rush, but really it was just a pressure that Goff gifted as a sack when the ball slipped out of his hands as he loaded up to throw it. Smith had a big pressure on the Packers' lone third-down stop of the first half, but that was his lone quarterback hit or sack of the game.

“One of the things I talked to Joe about was, hey, either play coverage or we have to pressure,” LaFleur said of the halftime discussion with his defensive coordinator. “Because when we were doing our four-man rushes and playing man coverage behind it, we weren’t getting to the quarterback.”

Barry made some personnel changes in the secondary by introducing a new nickel where Kevin King played the slot and Jaire Alexander and Stokes manned the outside. But that might have just been for this game plan, to match the 6-2 King with Cephus, who often lines up in the slot and at 6-1 and 208 pounds is big for the position.

The mixing and matching is likely to continue as Barry experiments and figures out what works best. He’s also going to have to come up with some blitzes and stunts to help get to the quarterback, because with Za’Darius Smith out the Packers just aren’t looking disruptive up front.

“We’re going to take a good, hard look at what we ask those guys to do,” LaFleur said. “Detroit’s got a pretty damn good offensive line, so we can’t discredit them in that regard … There’s things we need to try to do to get home with a four-man rush.”

The question now and surely for weeks to come is just how much better Barry’s defense gets as the players learn his scheme and he learns his players. At some point in the next couple of months the learning curve better turn steep, or the Packers will be looking at 2016 all over again.

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