Questions of identity dog the 2019 Green Bay Packers. Consistency on either side of the ball on a down-to-down basis eludes them, replaced instead with brilliant flashes of dynamic potential. One drive the Packers offense looks utterly unstoppable, an excellent Bears defense helpless to defend it. The next, they’re lifeless, listless, and pallid, drifting through plays like a teenager through first period English.
Defensively they face a similar bugaboo. Blown coverages and missed assignments allow big plays and on third downs, they struggle to get off the field on anything resembling a consistent basis. “Winning ugly” might as well be the title of the team DVD this season.
But one through line binds them in a way contributing to winning as opposed to fan consternation: this is the best red zone team in football. The Packers led the league in points per red zone trip heading into Week 15, paying off their only red zone trip against the Bears with a touchdown. Likewise, Pettine’s defense came into Bears week third in points allowed per red zone trip, then forced the Bears to go 1-for-3 in scoring opportunities punching in for scores. They’re the only team in the top 3 in both categories and only the Vikings join them in the top 5.
Mike Pettine’s defense gives up big plays, but when opposing offenses get close to the end zone, his squad stiffens. They create turnovers, stick to wide receivers a little closer, and create pressure on the quarterback. A lack of space mitigates Blake Martinez’s limitations in the middle of the field as a cover player and an injection of speed, with players like Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage, close down windows as soon as they open. Savage nearly had a key interception on a promising Bears drive late in the first half, driving on a Trubisky throw. When they’re not worried about getting beat over the top, defensive backs can play more aggressively and their playmaking abilities shine.
For all the yards and big plays this defense allows, when they need to keep teams out of the end zone, they’re definitively elite at executing.
For Rodgers and Co., the red zone provides the other Aaron a chance to shine, with Jones and his running mate Jamaal Williams taking over in the scoring zone. Of Jones’ ridiculous 17 touchdowns to this point, 14 came in the red zone, including 13 of his 14 rushing touchdowns. In fact, Sunday against the Bears was the first ground score Jones had this season on a rush longer than 20 yards and it was 21.
In the red zone, their offensive success rate is third in the league, just ahead of the high-powered Ravens. By success rate, two of the three most effective zones on the field for the Packers are in the middle and on the right in the red zone according to Sharp Football Stats, the only places they have a success rate over 60%.
When they have opportunities to score, they score. The one game where they couldn’t and the red zone offense made headlines ended up being the lone Lambeau loss against the Eagles, featuring an interception off a receiver’s shoulder pads and a fourth down failure.
And speaking of interceptions, turnover ratio contributes heavily to red zone success as well. Think of games where the Packers lost, against teams like Philly and San Francisco. They turned the ball over, not only in the red zone, but deep in their own territory. A fumble gifted the 49ers seven points without the defense even really having a chance to get a stop.
Green Bay can be 11-3 without consistency on either side of the ball thanks to red zone efficiency, specifically because they don’t give teams extra possessions. Only the Patriots have a better turnover margin this season after the Packers went 3-0 on Sunday against the Bears, adding three fourth-down stops as well, which are de facto turnovers. Going into Monday Night Football, only the Saints have fewer turnovers this season, and they’re just one ahead of the Packers with a game fewer played.
We want Rodgers’ numbers to be better, to return to the halcyon days of four touchdown passes, 300-yard games and 20-point wins. That was pretty. But rarely were those teams 11-3, tied for the best record in the NFC. Even the best versions of those teams often had to play Wild Card weekend, including the team who won the Super Bowl. It may not be aesthetically pleasing, but it’s an effective and sustainable way to win because at its core, it’s the most fundamental skill a team can have.
Don’t give teams extra scoring opportunities, maximize your own, and prevent opponents from doing the same. That’s a winning formula. Forget winning ugly — this is the identity of the Packers and it’s beautiful. They’re the best red zone offense in the league and have been all season. Defensively, the big plays can be maddening but when it comes to keeping opponents out of the end zone when they have a good chance, Za’Darius Smith and his defense handle business. And we know they won’t beat themselves. So far this season, most opponents can’t beat them either.