GREEN BAY, Wis. – Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and the offensive players call it the gold zone. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is more of a traditionalist and sticks with red zone.
Whatever the color, the Green Bay Packers have been a rainbow of awesome from inside the 20-yard line.
Green Bay led the NFL in scoring due in large part to its perhaps unprecedented success in the red zone, err, gold zone. The Packers scored touchdowns on 80 percent of their treks inside the 20. The NFL has red-zone data going back to 1999. The previous best was Kansas City’s 78.8 percent in 2003. When Green Bay scored 560 points in 2011, at the time the third-most points in NFL history (now fourth), it ranked third at 65.2 percent. The Packers scored on 64.0 percent of their red-zone possessions last year. Their previous best was 68.1 percent in 2012.
Combining the red zone with third down, where Green Bay finished second with a 49.4 percent conversion rate after it ranked 23rd at 36.0 percent last year, the Packers soared to 31.8 points per game from last year’s 23.5.
“What we did, the jump in third down, last year that was an issue,” Hackett said on Wednesday. “The third-down jump has been unbelievable to almost 50 percent. What we did in the gold zone, it’s unbelievable. It’s just those guys buying in and understanding their role, understanding what they need to do and then executing it. It’s been a fun thing to watch this year. We’ve still got to go do it now in the playoffs.”
During an MVP-quality season, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was particularly magnificent in the red zone. He struck gold in the red zone with 35 touchdown passes. Only four players threw more regardless of the position on the field. And if that’s not enough: Rodgers threw 35 touchdown passes vs. 23 incompletions.
Defensively, Green Bay finished eighth with an opponent touchdown rate of 58.3 percent. That area of the game went from major weakness to major strength in short order. After giving up three touchdowns in four red-zone possessions at Detroit in Week 14, the Packers were a woeful 28th with a red-zone touchdown percentage of 67.5.
However, the Packers allowed 1-of-5 vs. Carolina, 1-of-2 vs. Tennessee and 1-of-5 vs. Chicago. That combined 3-of-12 sent them soaring to an eighth-ranked 57.7 percent.
“It’s something that we spend a lot of time on from a prep standpoint,” Pettine said. “From an on-the-field standpoint, obviously, it’s huge. Third downs and red zone, those are the critical downs, especially when you get in the red zone. You get a stop, that’s essentially a four-point play.
“Some of the things we were doing schematically that we’ve kind of evolved to took a little bit of time of getting a sense for it and guys getting comfortable and having a good understanding of what we’re doing. But I think a lot of it was guys played better. I don’t think it was anything magical scheme-wise or coaching-wise. We emphasize it but I just think our guys in general have a better understanding of what we’re doing and, more importantly, a better understanding of what teams are trying to do. We’ve emphasized all along using the pre-snap information. What is an offense telling us? What is the backfield set telling us? What does the situation tell us? We’ve done a real good with that in the red zone and, fortunately, we’ve gotten the results.”
Those four-point plays that Pettine talked about will be critical in the playoffs. Offensively, Seattle was fourth, New Orleans fifth and Tampa Bay seventh in the red zone. Defensively, Washington was fourth and Chicago was fifth. Green Bay was the only NFC playoff team in the top half of the league in red-zone offense and red-zone defense.