Green Bay Packers

How Can the Packers Better Strike Gold In the Red Zone?

Photo credit: Wm. Glasheen USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Stop me if you’ve heard this before — the Green Bay Packers lost a playoff game where they had to settle for red-zone field goals.

Like in the Seattle Seahawks game in 2014 and the Atlanta Falcons game in 2016, Green Bay moved well between the 20s against the San Francisco 49ers last Saturday but couldn’t finish the job in the red zone. The Packers scored touchdowns on only two of their five red-zone trips. Eventually, the missed opportunities cost them the game.

The Niners have a stout defense, but Green Bay’s young offense scored against other top defenses, including excelling in the red zone against the Dallas Cowboys. And it wasn’t just the 49ers game where they couldn’t effectively punch it in. To take the next step, the Packers offense must improve their red-zone success rate and turn it back into the gold zone.

The Green Bay offense that looked like a contender in late December through January was more like a rusted machine in October. According to TeamRankings, they finished the season 17th in red-zone scoring percentage (53.4%). That was an improvement from their 23rd-ranked performance in Aaron Rodgers last season (51.8%) but a far cry from their first-ranked 76.8% in 2020.

A lot of Green Bay’s ranking reflects a young offense still learning how to work together. Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams were at their best in 2020. Three years later, the Packers had Jordan Love starting for the first time and a group of receivers that struggled to run routes for the first half of the season.

It’s reasonable to expect the Packers to improve that number organically with more experience and another training camp. From the eye test, it looked like Matt LaFleur generally had a good plan of attack in the red zone. However, Green Bay’s young players made mistakes, or savvy defensive players made the right moves to force the Packers to settle for field goals.

The red zone will be an area of focus for the offense after the 49ers game. Love should have better chemistry with his receivers, and they should have better knowledge of the playbook. Hopefully, the offensive line can improve its run blocking, and adding to the running back room can bring in additional playmakers.

But Nathaniel Hackett’s work is the other reason the 2020 team was so good. Green Bay’s former offensive coordinator was a red-zone specialist. Hackett’s reputation has obviously taken a hit since his stints in Denver and New York, but his fingerprints were all over the offense three years ago.

Hackett turned the red zone into the gold zone. He went as far as to dress up as the iconic Austin Powers villain Johann van der Smut (better known as Goldmember) and yelling, “I love goooooold,” to build the culture.

It might be worth bringing in another “gold” zone specialist this offseason to help the team evolve.

Credit where it’s due, Adam Stenavich and the offensive coaching staff helped turn things around for this young offense after facing much criticism in the first half of the season (guilty). Stenavich’s specialty is the offensive line and run game, and both drastically improved later in the season. Wide receiver coach and passing-game coordinator Jason Vrable did a fantastic job preparing his young squad and getting them playing like pros.

With the coaching carousel in full effect, new head coaches could try to hire Stenavich or Vrable to fill their staff. Stenavich could take a LaFleur-esque move to take a lateral OC position with the chance to call plays. Both men would offer up-and-coming offensive minds coming from a successful staff.

If so, LaFleur should look outside the organization to find his next OC. Green Bay’s offensive coaching staff has a lot of talent, but it would be nice to see LaFleur going outside his comfort zone to find someone to challenge the offense. Seeking a red-zone specialist would be a good first step.

Even if LaFleur retains the current staff, he’d be wise to bring in someone as an offensive assistant or assistant head coach. HR is great at making up titles, so there’s a route to bringing someone in without overlapping with a current staffer.

Green Bay’s red-zone success rate could improve organically. You’d expect the offense to take another step forward next season just because the team has more experience and time to grow together. But I’ve always believed LaFleur could use an outside voice to take the offense to the next level. Bringing in an outside specialist, especially if the coaching staff experiences turnover, would help this promising offense ascend even further.

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Photo credit: Wm. Glasheen USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

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