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Packers Hope To Carry Over Red-Zone Improvement


FB John Kuhn scores on a 1-yard run at St. Louis in Week 4.

Last Sunday in Cleveland, Green Bay's offense posted touchdowns on two of its three trips inside the 20, matching a season-high percentage in that area, but Minnesota's defense will present the greatest red-zone challenge yet this season.

The Vikings enter Sunday's contest ranked No. 17 in overall defense, down from their No. 6 ranking in '08, but bring the top-ranked red-zone defense in the NFL to Lambeau Field. Minnesota is allowing opponents an average of just 3.28 points when they get inside the 20, giving up five touchdowns and eight field goals in 18 red-zone possessions for a total of 59 points.

"They are just playing soundly down there," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "They've got a good mix of defenses. They don't give you the same thing every time. They've been able to get a little bit of pressure on the quarterback sometimes. They're just really played good, sound football in that area."

The Vikings' ability to get to the quarterback is highlighted by their four red-zone sacks, which is tied for most in the league. They are tied for the top mark in the NFL with four takeaways, three interceptions and a fumble recovery, inside the 20.

The Vikings have also allowed opponents to convert just one of 10 third downs (10 percent) inside the 20, good for the top mark in the league, and just a 1.38-yard average per play.

"I think a couple of occasions they have gotten some teams into longer-yardage situations," Philbin said. "They play pretty good defense on first down. When you start doing that, the third-and-7s or 8s are even tougher. They are not easy to convert anywhere on the field, but I think when you are in the red zone and you have less space, they make them even more challenging.

"Then they do a great job of breaking on the ball and tackling, just good, sound fundamentals. They have a good scheme down there. It's nothing really magical, but they mix up their calls and they execute it pretty well."

Philbin said the biggest challenge the offense faces when it is inside the 20 is picking up the pace of the game in the more confined space.

"Running backs, when that crack opens, you've got to accelerate," Philbin said. "There is less time, you better accelerate through it. Quarterback, you had better be more decisive than you are in the open field about discipline in your progressions, and sneaking that ball between two defenders.

"There are going to be some tight throws down there and you've got to have the confidence that you can make those throws. Playing clean and playing fast in the red zone are probably the two most important things."

In the Packers' 30-23 loss to the Vikings at the Metrodome in Week 4, Green Bay's three touchdowns all came by way of the big play, a 62-yard catch by tight end Jermichael Finley, a 42-yard fumble return for a score by linebacker Clay Matthews, and a 33-yard grab by wide receiver Jordy Nelson.

The Finley and Nelson touchdowns were just two of six passing plays by the Packers that went for 20-plus yards that night, an area Minnesota's defense has struggled in this season. The Vikings have allowed 29 offensive plays of more than 20 yards, 27 through the air, which is tied for third most in the NFL.

While the Packers had some success with the explosive gains, they weren't able to carry over that same efficiency to their two red-zone trips that night, with the first failed attempt serving as the more painful of the two. Down 28-14 in the third quarter with the ball at their own 18, quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the Packers down deep into Minnesota territory with two passes to wide receiver Donald Driver for 38 combined yards, and then hooked up with running back Ryan Grant on a 20-yard screen pass to the 5.

Grant then picked up four yards on first-and-goal to put the ball at the 1, but a second-down run by fullback John Kuhn and a pass in the flat to Finley on third down didn't pick up any yardage. The Packers went for it on fourth down at the 1, but tight end Donald Lee was not able to hold onto Rodgers' pass in the end zone as Green Bay saw its best chance to get back into the game slip away.

It was one of four red-zone visits this season that failed to produce any points for the Packers, but one of those came against Chicago in the season opener after Rodgers took a knee to run out the clock following an Al Harris interception, and another, vs. Cincinnati in Week 2, was when the Packers ran out of time with the ball at Cincinnati's 10-yard line.

{sportsad300}Overall, Green Bay has scored touchdowns on nine of 20 red-zone trips (45.0 percent), with field goals on seven more for a total of 83 points, giving the Packers a 4.15-point average when they get inside the 20 (23rd in the league).

"Some drives you can swallow and you can tolerate (field goals)," Philbin said. "Every once in a while you've got to acknowledge, as much as you want to be, that you're not going to be 100 percent (scoring touchdowns). Sometimes you had a good play called and their defensive back made a great play. Hey, sometimes that stuff happens and you can live with that. I think the thing that frustrates you is when you feel like some of it is self-inflicted."

On the Packers' seven red-zone trips that ended in field goals this season, the negative plays have been a factor. Four of those possessions inside the 20 included sacks for losses of 31 yards, and one more included a false-start penalty that pushed them back into a second-and-long situation.

"They just kill you," Philbin said. "The negative plays, playing clean down there, we don't sit in the meeting and say, 'No sacks, no penalties.' You don't want to bring all of those things up, but you know that they are out there and you've got to avoid those."

After getting in the end zone just once in seven trips inside the 20 at Minnesota and vs. Detroit, the offense bounced back in Cleveland last Sunday with the two touchdowns.

The first came in the second quarter when cornerback Charles Woodson's interception put the ball at Cleveland's 15. A 9-yard run from Grant put the ball at the 3, and he punched it in a few plays later for the 1-yard score. In the fourth quarter, a season-long 37-yard run from Grant to the Browns' 5 set up a touchdown pass from Rodgers to wide receiver James Jones on the next play.

"Red zone is about intensity I think," Grant said. "Once you get down there, it's about doing whatever is necessary to kind of punch it in. (Minnesota) has done a great job. They play fast and they know the scheme of the defense. Guys have been there for a while and you've got to match that intensity.

"You always want to come away with a touchdown, but sometimes it doesn't work like that. It's that extra inch, whether it's one more person executing or finishing that block a little better, running a little harder. It's just doing whatever it takes to get the ball in the end zone."

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