Much has been made about the Green Bay Packers' inability to score touchdowns when entering the red zone in recent weeks.
The surface numbers certainly tell a damning a story: Since scoring six points on 4-of-4 opportunities inside the red zone against the San Francisco 49ers, the Packers have converted just 5-of-16 in games against the Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens. Three of those red-zone touchdowns came against the Redskins in Week 2.
The leader in red zone touchdown percentage a year ago at 68.5, the Packers are now tied for 27th in the NFL at just 45 percent. Over the last three games, Green Bay's 20 percent scoring rate is tied for dead last with Houston.
These are ugly numbers, and a big reason why the Packers have struggled to put up big points in back-to-back weeks. Green Bay failed to score a touchdown in six red zone opportunities against the Lions and Ravens, and results have been point totals of 22 and 19, respectively.
There's no debating how important scoring touchdowns is when given the opportunity. The best offenses can operate inside the condensed space—which gives defenses a clear advantage—and put six points on the board instead of three. Take the Denver Broncos for example, who are leading the NFL in scoring through six weeks (in fact, Denver has scored more points over the first games than any team in NFL history). The Broncos are converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns at a staggering rate of 82.1 percent.
But sometimes numbers can be deceiving, and there's reason to believe that is the case with Green Bay's inside the red zone this season.
Keep in mind, the Packers were perfect inside the 20 against the 49ers, on the road and facing a top defense. It's not all gloom and doom here.
To get a better feeling for the recent struggles, let's break down the origin of the problems game-by-game since San Francisco:
- Aaron Rodgers takes back-to-back sacks immediately after getting into the red zone, leaving the offense with a 3rd-and-goal from the Washington 24.
- Washington is given the football via a touchback when James Jones extends for the pylon but fumbles.
- After James Starks rumbles for 13 yards to get into the red zone, the Packers kneel on the football to end the game.
- On 3rd-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Rodgers runs a boot action to his right. Only Jeremy Ross is provided as a receiver to the bootleg side. Rodgers is forced out of bounds at the 1-yard line.
- A second-down sack sets up 3rd-and-goal from the Cincinnati 12-yard line. Rodgers hits Jordy Nelson on a quick slant (which was designed with blockers in front), but only gains four yards.
- On 1st-and goal from the 4-yard line, Rodgers is sacked for minus-5 yards. After a quick hitter to James Jones for one yard, Rodgers scrambles to his right on third down but can't connect with Randall Cobb against blanket coverage in the end zone.
- Mike McCarthy calls playaction and rolls Rodgers out on a 3rd-and-1 play just inside the red zone. He has options at every level (short, intermediate and deep), but the Lions get pressure in his face and the coverage is again solid.
- A 10-yard holding penalty on David Bakhtiari eventually sets up a 3rd-and-19 situation. Rodgers hits Cobb for 11 yards on third down. Cobb is short of the sticks, and also breaks his fibula on the play.
- After Datone Jones picked up a fumble and rumbled down to the Baltimore 13-yard line, the Packers brought on Mason Crosby for a chip shot field with just two seconds left on the first half clock.
- Facing 3rd-and-1 from the 13-yard line, McCarthy dials up a play action pass. Nelson runs an outward breaking route to the playside of the bootleg, but Rodgers' pass is too high and the coverage too good.
- After Eddie Lacy picks up four yards on 3rd-and-2, the Packers kneel down on the Baltimore 9-yard line.
DRIVE KILLING TOTALS
3: Sacks allowed that set up 3rd-and-longs
3: Questionable playcalls on 3rd-and-short situations
2: Kneel down situations to end the game
1: Holding penalty that set up 3rd-and-long
1: End of the half situation
This examination reveals a few things.
First, self-inflicted wounds are as much to blame as any other factor. Taking sacks and drawing holding penalties will kill a drive regardless of location on the field. These negatives only become more pronounced when the field shrinks and offenses get more conservative (turnovers are a big no-no inside the 20-yard line; quarterbacks like Rodgers would rather check down or throw away than force a throw).
Secondly, play calling has been an issue. There's trusting your quarterback in any situation, and there's getting cute for no reason. McCarthy has tip-toed that line in recent weeks and it's come back to bite him. When you have a 235-pound running back who has only a handful of carries that haven't netted more than a yard, give him the football on 3rd-and-short and play the percentages. Rolling Rodgers to his right off playaction is obviously a predictable call in this situation.
Lastly, the Packers have simply been unlucky. Two kneel downs that each clinched wins can hardly be seen as a negative, and McCarthy had no choice but to attempt a field goal at the end of the first half in Baltimore. Overall, that's three "empty" trips inside the red zone that hurt the Packers' percentage but shouldn't really factor in. Take those three away opportunities and Green Bay suddenly has a touchdown rate of 52.9 percent, which would currently rank 13th in the NFL. Also, Jones' fumble against Washington was simply a hustle play gone wrong.
Compared to last season, the Packers clearly haven't been as efficient in the red zone in 2013. And the drop off in scoring touchdowns inside the 20-yard line has been a factor in Green Bay's recent scoring dip.
But behind every statistic is the need for context, and the Packers red zone percentage certainly has more working parts than a "45 percent touchdown rate" would suggest. Mistakes, playcalling and bad luck have all played a role.
If the Packers clean up the fixable mental errors, put more trust in Lacy on short-yardage situations and simply have their luck turn around, there's no reason why this offense won't start scoring more touchdowns inside the red zone.
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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