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Day-After Notes: Offense Aims To Improve Red Zone, Third Downs, Turnovers

With the defense playing at as high a level as it has all season for the Packers, the team’s focus for improvement over the final three regular-season games falls on the offensive side, and specifically in three areas: Red-zone efficiency, third-down efficiency and turnovers. - More Mike McCarthy Press Conference Transcript - Dec. 14


TE Jermichael Finley fumbled the ball after a 19-yard reception in the waning moments of the first half on Sunday in Chicago.

With the defense playing at as high a level as it has all season for the Packers, the team's focus for improvement over the final three regular-season games falls on the offensive side, and specifically in three areas.

Red-zone efficiency, third-down efficiency and turnovers.

None of those categories has been a complete disaster for the Packers by any stretch, but as the team makes a push for an NFC playoff spot and hopefully a postseason run, areas like these that have shown some slippage lately need to be shored up the rest of the way.

Starting with the red zone, the Packers have scored touchdowns on 50 percent of their opportunities inside the opponent's 20-yard line this season (24-of-48). That ranks right in the middle of the pack, tied for 16th in the league.

But the offense's total red-zone chances are tied for sixth in the league and the number of missed opportunities over the last four games has been somewhat alarming. The Packers are just 8-of-19 in the red zone going back to the San Francisco game in Week 11, though it should be noted that the kneel-down at the end of Sunday's game in Chicago at the Bears' 10-yard line counted statistically against them.

Still, the Packers have settled for field goals far too often for the offense's liking. Penalties in the red zone have played a factor, and Head Coach Mike McCarthy chalked it up mostly to execution, though he did say he's been critical of himself for some of the play-calling.

"Certainly we feel like we're capable of executing better down there," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "We feel like we're better than a middle-of-the-road team and we should be down there. We've gotten down there as of late quite a bit, a good number of times."

No matter the reason, the missed chances prevented the Packers from putting away three of their last four victims - the 49ers, Lions and Bears - sooner than they did. Green Bay settled for two short field goals in the first half of each of those games when touchdowns could have blown the contests open early.

"We're getting down there enough, but yeah, we need to score more touchdowns," McCarthy said. "Our production needs to improve in the red zone, there's no doubt about it."

As for third downs, the Packers haven't been near the top of the charts all season, primarily because of the number of third-and-longs they've faced, particularly early in the season when sacks were plaguing the offense. But the offense had improved significantly of late, converting better than 50 percent (32-of-62) on third down in the four wins prior to Sunday.

The Chicago game raised a bit of a red flag, though, and not just because the Packers went 5-of-13 overall (38 percent), the team's lowest conversion rate since going 5-of-14 (36 percent) in the loss at Tampa Bay in Week 9. But against the Bears they were also only 2-of-7 on third-and-4 or less (29 percent), a significant departure from this season's track record.

Coming into the game, the Packers had converted better than 70 percent (32-of-45) when needing 4 yards or less, but they were stymied far too often in very manageable third downs against the Bears.

The most frustrating failure came right at the end of the game with the offense trying to run the clock out and protect a seven-point lead. The Bears used their final timeout with 3:06 left prior to third-and-1 on the Green Bay 37.

A conversion would require only one more play to be run before the 2-minute warning, and then the offense could kill at least two-thirds of the remaining 2 minutes without getting another first down. But running back Ahman Green was stuffed for a loss of 1, and the Bears got one more crack on offense with a little more than 2 minutes left.

"We felt like we had a solid play there at the end of the game," Philbin said. "Their scheme didn't surprise us, but they executed their scheme better than we executed ours.

"We've had some success in four-minute offense this year, but we've got to do a better job there. We've got to convert that. That's a critical play in the ball game that could have really come back to bite us later on."

The most disconcerting thing to McCarthy and the offensive staff, however, has been the turnovers in recent weeks. The Packers were leading the league in fewest giveaways for much of the year, turning the ball over just eight times through the first 10 games.

But the Packers have turned the ball over seven times in their last three contests, nearly doubling the season total to 15 and falling to third overall in the league rankings behind San Diego (13) and Minnesota (14). Thanks to the defense and its propensity for taking the ball away, the Packers still lead the league in turnover ratio at plus-18, but the five fumbles and two interceptions over the last three games don't sit well.

"We don't turn the ball over and I'm just a big believer in things that you make staples of your football team, things that you practice on every single day," McCarthy said. "You have to be able to identify with certain variables in your football team, and that's something that we've done a good job of."

Opponents have turned those seven turnovers into four touchdowns. The Baltimore Ravens scored back-to-back TDs off of consecutive turnovers last Monday night to quickly cut into a 17-0 deficit.

Moreover, four of the seven turnovers have come with the offense inside the opponent's 40-yard line, either in field-goal range or close to it. That was the case on both of the fumbles in Sunday's Chicago game, by tight end Jermichael Finley at the end of the first half and by quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the opening drive of the second half.

Incidentally, Rodgers' fumble marked the third straight game the Packers have turned the ball over on their first possession of the second half, with all three coming inside the opponent's 40.

"We told the guys at halftime, 'Look, we're doing everything we wanted to do. Let's finish this thing off. Let's do the things right,'" Philbin said of Sunday's game. "The first drive of the half, we cough it up on a blitz that we have been (working on) since April. So yeah, that's real frustrating, real frustrating."

New deal

McCarthy confirmed that linebacker Brandon Chillar has been signed to a contract extension that will keep him in Green Bay for the foreseeable future.

{sportsad300}Chillar has proven to be a versatile and valuable linebacker over his two seasons in Green Bay, often guarding the tight end in coverage but also playing as an extra linebacker in run-support packages and contributing on the special teams units.

Chillar did not play in four games from scrimmage after breaking his hand against Minnesota on Nov. 1, but he has returned to the defensive packages the last two contests and made his usual, steady impact.

"He gives you a lot of flexibility," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "We've moved him around. He's a smart guy, has good football instincts. He's a flexible athlete. He can rush, he can drop and you can normally count on him being where he's supposed to be.

"Those kind of guys, as you get into game-planning, their value becomes higher because you can do so many things with him. The fact he can play multiple positions I think really works in his favor."

Injury update

McCarthy indicated that defensive end Johnny Jolly (knee) and nose tackle Ryan Pickett (hamstring) would probably miss some practice time this week. Pickett could test his hamstring on Wednesday or Thursday to see if he could return to practice by the end of the week.

In addition, defensive end B.J. Raji, who had an ankle injury last week and then also hurt his shoulder in Sunday's game, would be limited in practice, as would cornerback Brandon Underwood (hip).

McCarthy also said the health of offensive tackle Mark Tauscher would be monitored closely after he played two full games in a span of six days.

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