Packers' red-zone struggles not unusual in offensive system Matt LaFleur employs

Jim Owczarski
Packers News
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GREEN BAY – In many of the spring practice sessions and then again in the early days of training camp, the Green Bay Packers have spent valuable time working the most important part of the field offensively: the red zone.

It makes sense, naturally. While not a mathematical truth that successful red-zone teams make the playoffs, it no doubt can help a team’s chances. Each of the last two seasons, five playoff teams finished in the top-10 in red-zone scoring percentage.

What is interesting, however, is that teams that have run the type of offense first-year head coach Matt LaFleur brought to Green Bay haven’t finished near the top of the league in that category.

For instance, the Los Angeles Rams finished 2017 and '18 as the 17th- and 18th-ranked red-zone offense, yet finished No. 1 and No. 2 in points per game. When LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta, the Falcons were No. 12 and No. 9 in red-zone touchdown efficiency in 2015 and '16, but finished No. 21 and No. 1 scoring.

Head coach Matt LaFleur during a joint training camp practice with the Houston Texans at Ray Nitchske Field Tuesday, August 6, 2019, in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

That said, LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett have put an emphasis on the red area to date, and the Packers had a chance to highlight that work Tuesday in the final day of joint practices with the Houston Texans.

Kind of.

Operating with what LaFleur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers deemed limited looks (as opposed to more creative formational work the team had been working on before), the Packers’ offense struggled to put together smooth-looking series in either 7-on-7 or full teamwork against the Texans on Tuesday.

In 7-on-7, a touchdown from Rodgers to Darrius Shepherd was nullified by an offensive pass interference call, but then Rodgers hit Davante Adams close to the goal line. Rodgers also found Equanimeous St. Brown for a score.

In 11-on-11 work the first unit did not crack the goal line on eight plays, including allowing a “sack” on one play and a miscommunication between Rodgers and tight end Jimmy Graham on one throw to the end zone.

“Yeah, there was some good stuff, some not-so-good stuff,” LaFleur said of the red-zone periods. “We didn’t unveil the whole gamut of stuff, especially, you’ve got John Pagano (brother of Chuck, the Bears defensive coordinator) so certainly want to save some things. And I think they were pretty basic, too. It was more or less I think these last two days are just lining up, playing good, sound, fundamental football and really get an evaluation of our players.”

Tight end Robert Tonyan, who worked in with Rodgers and backup quarterback DeShone Kizer during the 7-on-7 and team periods, acknowledged as much also, saying without real game planning those plays could look choppy.

“People are still playing well, there are still opportunities to go make plays but sometimes our plays don’t look good against their looks and stuff like that, but at the end of the day it’s all about competition and if you run a play into a bad look you just gotta learn,” Tonyan said. “You gotta learn from (it). You sometimes you run plays into bad looks and you just gotta make them work.”

There were some highlights for the backup units, as tight end Evan Baylis caught a couple of touchdown passes from Kizer in 7-on-7 and then in the team period, and Kizer also found Jake Kumerow for a score in the back of the end zone for a touchdown.

Generally speaking, however, the Texans were able to combat what the Packers were trying to do in the scoring area. Some of the run fits didn’t open up for running back Dexter Williams and fullback Danny Vitale, and the Texans also managed a “tackle for loss” on a run by Corey Grant. Darrin Hall broke through with a strong run at the end of the team session with Manny Wilkins at quarterback.

“I’m not worried about it,” Rodgers said. “The last two days, it’s about lining up against a different team and looking at the scheme that we did run and moving on.”

Though Rodgers indicated he likely is sitting out Thursday’s preseason opener at Lambeau Field against the Texans, he’s looking forward to getting back to working on a more diverse playbook — which could lead to more success in the scoring area.

“Well, I think before the Texans came, we had some really good practices,” Rodgers said. “I think we were very efficient, we ran the ball well, we were getting into more of our miscellaneous plays and schemes, kind of installs 6, 7 and 8, and felt good about the work that we did. But again, this was, as the preseason is, it’s kind of limited scheme and limited pressures."

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