The Green Bay Packers have accomplished an incredible feat in the early going, never once stopping an opponent from scoring on a red zone trip. Packer opponents have entered the Packer red zone 13 times, and have scored a touchdown 13 times.
That is absolutely nuts, and would generally indicate a struggling defense, but the Packers have been pretty good on defense outside of the red zone, especially considering they’re missing two of their best players in Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander. They rank 20th in DVOA and 17th against the pass, but they’ve been especially good just outside the red zone. While their numbers from their own 21 to midfield are also bad (a subject for a future post), it’s their red zone defense that is dragging them down.
So what’s going on in the red zone? Is there something intrinsic to how they play defense in that is causing these issues? It’s a hard question, and the answer is complicated, but their single biggest issue is penalties. Penalties have absolutely killed them in the red zone.
Opponents have had 13 possessions (obviously) and 49 plays against the Packer defense in the red zone. The Packers’ defense has forced a 3rd or 4th down 9 times, but on those plays, they have committed four extremely damaging penalties. Three out of the four have handed the opposing team a first down.
Against the 49ers, a PI penalty on Eric Stokes gave San Francisco a new set of downs at the end of the first half. Trey Lance would eventually take it in on 3rd and one from the one yard line. Stokes did it again against the Steelers, getting flagged while covering Diontae Johnson on 3rd and six from the six. Against the Saints in Week one, Darnell Savage lost a red zone interception on 3rd and nine to a roughing the passer call against Za’Darius Smith, granting New Orleans 15 yards and a fresh set of downs. Finally, on 4th and 3 against the Saints, Dean Lowry was flagged for being offsides moving the ball to the one and a half, where Jameis Winston would hit Juwan Johnson for the score. The Packers’ defense has been flagged six times overall in the red zone, and each one played a large role in denying them a stop.
But it’s not entirely the fault of penalties. The Packer pass defense has legitimately struggled in the red zone as well. Inside the Packers’ 20, opposing quarterbacks are 18/23 for 119 yards. A 78% completion percentage would be bad anywhere on the field, but it’s especially terrible in the red zone, as it should be more difficult to complete passes as the field shrinks near the end zone. And it’s worse than you think. Of those 5 incompletions, 4 were from Jimmy Garoppolo, and none were on 3rd down. The other was Ben Roethlisberger on 2nd and 6, but on 3rd and 6, one of those pesky PI penalties gave the Steelers a new set of downs.
It’s a shame, because the Packer run defense has actually been quite good in the red zone (17 carries, 47 yards, and a 59% success rate for the defense). While Joe Mixon may have made Shemar Jean-Charles look silly on Sunday, generally speaking they’ve stuffed runners when they’ve had to.
The one thing they could firm up a bit immediately is covering running backs in the passing game. We saw Kyle Juszczyk and Samaje Perine exploit mismatches for short touchdowns, as did Tony Jones and Alvin Kamara in the Saints game. The Packers do seem to have coverage issues on backs when using heavy personnel near the goal line, which is difficult for any defense, but teams will likely continue to exploit this particular weakness.
Some of this will likely get better on its own. Generally speaking, it’s difficult for a defense to struggle specifically in the red zone, and this is doubly true when their run defense is adequate. Simply not having as many catastrophic penalties called on them will likely help, and if Jaire Alexander can return to properly pair with Eric Stokes, that will serve to fix most passing game issues across the entire field, red zone included.