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Packers reach for ‘own energy’ on defense

Green Bay’s Rashan Gary sacks Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford during the second half Sunday in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers are 10th out of 32 NFL teams in total defense, but that’s due in part to an offense that has controlled possession more than any other team in the league. (AP photo)

As long as the Green Bay Packers keep scoring 40-plus points every game, their defense can afford the occasional lapses that have marked their first two performances.

But the reality of the situation is that Green Bay’s defense must improve because its offense can’t maintain this electrifying pace all season.

“We can’t have any up-and-down moments, any roller coaster moments where we start off good and then we have our dips and then come back up,” outside linebacker Preston Smith said. “We’ve got to kind of reach our peak, stay there and keep on rising.”

It’s easy to pinpoint those dips.

Green Bay gave up touchdowns on the last three possessions of a 43-34 victory at Minnesota and the first two drives of a 42-21 victory over Detroit.

They must play better to win Sunday night at New Orleans (1-1), whether or not the Saints have Michael Thomas available. The two-time All-Pro receiver missed the Saints’ 34-24 loss at Las Vegas with an ankle injury and didn’t practice Thursday.

Although the Saints’ offense has struggled a bit thus far, their track record suggests that won’t continue.

“I think just schematically you just look back at over the course of these years, you know, they’re a team that everybody in the league watches because their staff does such a great job of getting just explosive plays and are able to generate points year in and year out,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.

The Packers have allowed 344.5 yards per game and are 10th out of 32 NFL teams in total defense, but that’s due in part to an offense that has controlled possession for more than 38 minutes per game to lead the league. Green Bay has given up 6.4 yards per play to rank 27th.

This defense still has plenty of reason for optimism.

New first-team nickel back Chandon Sullivan showed his promise by scoring on a 7-yard interception return against Detroit. Rashan Gary has bounced back from a disappointing rookie season and emerged as a pass-rushing force to complement Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. Za’Darius Smith has a sack in each of the Packers’ first two games.

“It’s a physical front inside when you’ve got a veteran like Kenny Clark at nose who’s a strong player, Za’Darius Smith who can wreak havoc in your passing game and your running game,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Not to mention the other guys that are playing inside. It’s also a good group on the back end. The corners are outstanding players, as are the safeties.”

Clark’s status is uncertain after he missed the Lions game with a groin injury, though he did practice on a limited basis Thursday.

The return of Clark could help Green Bay’s defense stop its recent penchant for slow starts. Green Bay has allowed a touchdown on the opponent’s opening series each of the first two weeks.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said the defense made six or seven mental errors against Detroit, and that five of them happened in the first quarter. Safety Darnell Savage Jr. wonders if the lack of fans might impact how Green Bay’s defense has started games.

“You in a way have to bring your own kind of energy,” Savage said. “But sometimes you can bring too much. So we’ve just got to find that balance, and we normally find it around the third drive or so. Hopefully this week we can start off strong and end strong.”

Once that happens, Green Bay’s defense will start playing better than it has in the past couple of weeks.

“The bottom line for us is it was well enough to win, but it has not been to our standards,” Pettine said. “Obviously it’s great when we can make big plays and score points, but we have to raise our level of consistency. Our offense is not going to be able to control the ball for 38 minutes a game all year.”

NOTES: Packers receiver Davante Adams didn’t practice for a second straight day as he deals with a hamstring injury. … Tight end Josiah Deguara (ankle) also didn’t practice after sitting out the Lions game.

AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.

SERIES RECORD — Packers lead 16-9

LAST MEETING — Saints beat Packers 26-17, Oct. 22, 2017 at Green Bay

LAST WEEK — Packers beat Lions 42-21; Saints lost to Raiders 34-24

AP PRO32 RANKING — Packers No. 4, Saints No. 10

PACKERS OFFENSE — OVERALL (1), RUSH (1), PASS (5).

PACKERS DEFENSE — OVERALL (10), RUSH (13), PASS (13).

SAINTS OFFENSE — OVERALL (21), RUSH (25), PASS (14).

SAINTS DEFENSE — OVERALL (8), RUSH (8), PASS (16).

STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — The Packers haven’t beaten the Saints in New Orleans since 1995 but have played the Saints on the road only three times since then (2002, 2008, 2014). … Packers’ last win in Superdome came vs. Patriots in Super Bowl on Jan. 26, 1997.

Green Bay went 3-1 in prime-time road games last season.

The Packers and 1991 Buffalo Bills are only NFL teams to total at least 85 points and 1,000 yards through the first two games of season. Packers lead the NFL in yards per game (505), yards per play (7.11), yards rushing per game (208.5), yards per carry (6.22), time of possession (38:01) and points per game (42.5).

Packers are first team since 2008 Falcons to rush for 400-plus yards and average at least 6 yards per carry through their first two games. … Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has six TD passes and no INTs this season. … RB Aaron Jones had a career-high 236 scrimmage yards and three TDs last week, including 168 yards and two TDs rushing.

… Edge rusher ZaíDarius Smith had one sack last week and has a sack in both games.

… Saints WR Michael Thomas did not play last week with an ankle injury and availability for Week 3 is in doubt.

… QB Drew Brees passed for 312 yards and a TD with one INT vs. Raiders in Week 2. … Brees is completing 64.7% of passes through two games. He completed 74.3% last season, second only to his NFL record 74.4% in 2018.

… RB Alvin Kamara had 174 scrimmage yards, including nine catches for 95 yards, and two TDs rushing in Week 2. … Kamara has eight games with at least 50 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving since 2017, tied for second most in the NFL.

… The New Orleans defense has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 45 games. … WR TreíQuan Smith had five catches for 86 yards last week.

… DE Trey Hendrickson had one sack and two tackles for loss last week. He has a sack in each of the first two games. … Saints TE Jared Cook played for Green Bay in 2016. He had 30 catches for 377 yards and a TD with Packers.

… DT David Onyemata had one sack last week. … Saints will a second home game without fans in the Superdome this season because of coronavirus pandemic.

… Fantasy tip: Rodgers has passed for at least 300 yards in each of his last three games against the Saints and could be tempted to throw a lot this week after the way the New Orleans secondary struggled in Las Vegas in Week 2.

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