GREEN BAY, Wis. – Offensively, the Green Bay Packers call it the gold zone.
Defensively, they should call those final 20 yards to the goal line the yellow zone.
The Packers aren’t just the only team in the NFL without a red-zone stop this season, they’re the only team in at least the last 40 years without a red-zone stop in the first six weeks of a season. The league-wide touchdown rate in the red zone entering Week 7 was 61.8 percent. The Packers would need to get nine consecutive stops to get to that level. Even getting one right now would be cause for a parade.
The major emphasis hasn’t been defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme or play-calling. Rather, it’s eliminating the penalties that have given the opponents an extra set of downs.
“A huge number of the penalties we have had defensively have happened in the red zone,” Barry said on Thursday. “When you shoot yourself in the foot down there and you give NFL offenses a new set of downs, you’re really behind the 8-ball.”
Green Bay’s defense has been penalized only 10 times this season, tied for the fifth-fewest in the league. In total, including offsetting and declined penalties, it’s been flagged 14 times. Of those, six have been in the red zone, with four of those giving the opponent a first down.
“Just talking to the guys, one of the things that we’ve got to do is we’ve got to stop giving them extra plays,” defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. “When you get a third-down stop in the red zone, that’s taking away four points. But when you get a penalty in the red zone, you give them an extra four plays. And I look at us, we’ve had six penalties in the red zone. Just think about that. You’ve got 24 extra plays that you’ve got to go defend, and they’re going to get a touchdown most of the time. It equates to touchdowns if you get penalties in the red zone.”
Those penalties have equated to points aplenty.
Week 1 vs. New Orleans: On fourth-and-goal at the 3, Dean Lowry was flagged for offside. Given a fourth-and-goal at the 1, Jameis Winston threw a touchdown pass to put the Saints on top 17-0. Later, on third-and-9 from the 20, Za’Darius Smith’s roughing-the-passer penalty nullified Darnell Savage’s interception and was turned into another touchdown pass by Winston and a 31-3 lead.
“Everybody’s got a job to do and our’s is no different. At the end of the day, we’ve got to eliminate the mistakes,” defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said.
Week 2 vs. Detroit: Zero penalties, though the Lions went 2-for-2 in the red zone, anyway.
Week 3 vs. San Francisco: On third-and-5 at the 6, Eric Stokes was flagged for interference to give the 49ers a first-and-goal at the 1. On the next play, an incomplete pass, Lowry was flagged for hands to the face, resulting in offsetting penalties rather than offensive holding. On the final play of the half, Trey Lance scored to cut Green Bay’s lead to 17-7. Later, on a second-and-goal at the 3, Chandon Sullivan was flagged for defensive holding. On first-and-goal from the 1, Trey Sermon scored to cut the margin to 24-21.
“We’ve got to be in better position, especially as defensive backs,” Gray said. “Down there, everything happens so fast and, when you’re young, you tend to want to grab a guy or you want to be in position. I don’t think every play was a penalty but, you know what, they called it so we have to live with it.”
Week 4 vs. Pittsburgh: On third-and-goal at the 6, Stokes was flagged for pass interference. Najee Harris scored from the 1 to trim the Packers’ lead to 27-17.
Of the defense’s red-zone penalties, three were on third down and another was on fourth down.
“Just think about that,” Gray said. “You’re giving them four more downs and you should be off the field. So, that’s really what we’ve got to do.”
Week 5 vs. Cincinnati: No penalties, though the Bengals went 2-for-2.
Week 6 vs. Chicago: Officially, no penalties. However, on first down from the Packers’ 27, cornerback Isaac Yiadom was flagged for pass interference in the end zone. That gave Chicago the ball at the 1 to set up Khalil Herbert’s touchdown.
Friday is red zone day on the practice field, but Gray said the players were meeting on Thursday to discuss.
Penalties aren't the only issue. Even with zero red-zone penalties the last two games, opponents have scored four touchdowns in as many opportunities. And the penalties have had a hand in only five of the 15 touchdowns. Even assuming five stops, opponents would be scoring touchdowns at a 66.7 percent clip. That would put Green Bay tied for 20th. At least that would be a starting point.
With five consecutive wins, the Packers have survived a perhaps-unprecedented problem but it’s a problem that must be solved ASAP. Sunday’s opponent, Washington, is 14th in the red zone. After that, it’s games against Arizona (ninth), Kansas City (sixth), Seattle (fourth), Minnesota (10th) and the Rams (13th but with Matthew Stafford being first in touchdowns). Against really good competition, Green Bay can’t afford mistakes that give away four points.
“We’ve got to win downs and get off the field and hold them to field-goal attempts,” Barry said.