GREEN BAY, Wis. – There’s only one way for the Green Bay Packers to get people to shut up about their red-zone defense:
Come up with a stop.
At this point, even a field goal might suffice.
Six games into the season, the Packers defense hasn’t kept anyone out of the end zone once they got to Green Bay’s 20-yard line.
New Orleans started it with touchdowns on all four red-zone possessions in the opener. San Francisco matched that with a 4-for-4 game. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati each found the end zone on their lone drives that got inside the 20. Even winless Detroit went 2-for-2. After Chicago put up two touchdowns – its only two scores of the game – on its two red-zone possessions on Sunday, the Packers made history.
Not in at least the last 40 NFL seasons has a team failed to get even a single red-zone stop through the first six games of a season. It’s described as “in at least the last 40 seasons” because, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, play-by-play records only go back that far. It could actually be worse.
A field goal, a takeaway, a turnover on downs – anything to keep the opponent out of the end zone – would have prevented such a dubious distinction.
“The positive is we haven’t done very well in that department but we’ve still been able to win games, so hopefully that will start to even out a little bit, you’d think at some point,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said this week. “But we’ve got to continue to grind and work at it and maybe look at what we’re doing and try to switch some things up.”
LaFleur could argue mitigating circumstances – like the 26-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Isaac Yiadom that gave the Bears a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line on their opening drive Sunday. That it took the Bears two plays to score could actually be viewed as encouraging.
The other one against the Bears, however, was inexcusable. A holding penalty on first-and-10 from the Packers’ 16-yard line made it first-and-20 at the 26. That turned into second-and-12 at the 18, which became third-and-2 at the 8, which became first-and-goal at the 5, which became a touchdown to a wide-open Darnell Mooney.
“Anytime you get a pass interference call in the end zone, that’s gonna be a monster to stop,” LaFleur said. “I mean, four shots from the 1-yard line. The other touchdown pass that Chicago scored on, we had a busted coverage, and those are self-inflicted wounds. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t beat yourself first. There’s a lot of room for growth there.”
The Packers are 5-1 heading into Sunday’s game against Washington (1 p.m. ET, Fox) in spite of their red-zone defense, but at some point it might cost them a game.
The perplexing part is that under first-year defensive coordinator Joe Barry, the Packers have been solid on the rest of the field.
Of the 18 touchdowns the Packers have allowed this season, 15 have come in the red zone (10 passing and five rushing). Opposing quarterbacks have completed 20-of-25 passes (80 percent) in the red zone compared to 64.4 percent elsewhere on the field. None of the Packers’ 14 sacks have come in the red zone. So that’s no turnovers, obviously, and no sacks where it matters most.
“Everything happens faster in the red zone; everything is condensed,” Barry explained last week. “The speed of an NFL football game is incredible, but the closer you get to the goal line it speeds up even more. But it’s definitely an area that we constantly are talking about and working on. It does have to improve, absolutely, because we’re doing a lot of things really well, but that’s something we absolutely have to improve on.”
It’s not that Barry hasn’t tried different things. He played predominantly man coverage on red-zone plays against the Saints but has become more zone-heavy of late. The Bears’ second touchdown, however, was a clear breakdown in the zone. To be sure, a wave of injuries hasn't helped Barry, either.
The NFL average for red-zone stops is 61.8 percent. For the Packers to reach even the league average, they would need nine straight red-zone stops. The Lions have the second-worst red-zone success rate at 86.7 percent after allowing 13 touchdowns on 15 red-zone drives.
Last season, the Packers ranked eighth in the NFL in red-zone defense (57.7 percent) with Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator but were more prone to allowing bigger plays. Pettine’s defense allowed an average of 1.8 explosive runs (12 yards or more) per game and 4.5 explosive passes (16 yards or more) per game. Barry’s numbers through six games are slightly better at 1.6 and 3.6.
Barry’s defense also ranks fifth in fewest yards allowed per game but just 13th in points allowed because of their red-zone woes.
“I think we’ve played really well on defense lately,” safety Adrian Amos said. “That one area, that’s just an area we have to start being better at. Just like throughout the game, different situations, you’re not going to be perfect in every situation, but that’s what we do. We go to the drawing board, see what we haven’t done well in, what are the reasons we haven’t done well in that area, and just fix it.
“It’s early in the season. We can fix it. As you can see, as far as if you want to go with different stats as far as yards or points and everything, after that first game, we’ve been climbing the ladder.”