Packers winning in red (and gold) zone this season

Call it what you will, but Green Bay is getting it done inside the 20

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LB Christian Kirksey and CB Chandon Sullivan

GREEN BAY – From the lighthearted group celebrations to the sideline sunglasses, the Packers' offense has had a lot of fun inside what it affectionately calls the "gold zone" this season.

And with good reason.

No team scored more touchdowns inside the 20-yard line this year than Green Bay (44-of-55, 80%), the highest conversion rate in the NFL over the last 40 seasons.

The numbers are even more astounding over the Packers' six-game winning streak to end the regular season: 20 TDs on 22 red-zone trips (90.9%), with one of those misses coming as a result of a kneel-down to close out a 41-25 win over Chicago in Week 12.

The red-zone production has translated into more points (a league-high 31.8 per game) and increased third-down efficiency (49.4%), good for second in the NFL this season. Green Bay ranked 15th and 23rd, respectively, in those two categories last year.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers credits the creativity of offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and Head Coach/offensive play-caller Matt LaFleur for how successful the offense has been in the "gold zone," a nickname that originated with Hackett's admiration for the 2002 Mike Myers film "Austin Powers in Goldmember"

"I think we've done a good job of a lot of multi-purpose plays down there, which you've seen, some dump-offs with guys blocking, a lot of misdirection stuff has been working," Rodgers said. "There's been a lot of schematic touchdowns this year where I haven't really had to do a whole lot except make sure I don't screw up the throw."

As much acclaim as the "gold-zone" offense has received, it isn't the only phase thriving inside the 20 late in the season.

Gold turned to red when the Packers' defense was on the field, holding opponents to a league-low 25% conversion rate over its last three games to end the season eighth in red-zone defense (57.7%).

That's a sizeable turnaround for a unit that had been allowing touchdowns on 69.2% of its opponents' red-zone appearances at the midway point of the season.

"Some of the things we were doing schematically, that we've kind of evolved to, took a little bit of time of getting a sense for it and guys getting comfortable and having a good understanding," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said.

"But I think a lot of it was guys played better. I don't think it was anything magical scheme-wise or coaching-wise. We emphasize it but I just think our guys in general have a better understanding of what we're doing and, more importantly, a better understanding of what teams are trying to do."

While the Packers haven't made any drastic changes to the defense, they have benefitted from getting healthier with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark, safety Darnell Savage, cornerback Kevin King and linebacker Krys Barnes all back in the lineup after missing time earlier in the season.

Barnes, specifically, has seen his snaps spike over the last month after taking over as the 'Mike' linebacker, responsible for relaying Pettine's calls. The undrafted rookie out of UCLA has demonstrated an ability to read offenses as well, leading to a career-high 14 tackles in last Sunday's 35-16 win over Chicago.

Two weeks earlier against Carolina, Barnes was responsible for one of the Packers' biggest red-zone stops of the season when he "Mutumbo'ed" Teddy Bridgewater's attempted quarterback sneak at the goal line, forcing a fumble recovered by Kevin King.

Barnes has been a good complement to veteran Christian Kirksey, who has 16 tackles, two sacks and an interception as the 'Will' linebacker in the Packers' base and nickel packages the last three games.

"From the day he walked in here, one, you would never think he was an undrafted rookie," Pettine said. "Just the way he carries himself, he's very poised. He's not overly emotional. If he has a bad play, he shakes it off and it's on to the next one. He's another one of those guys … when he makes a mistake, he's locking it in and he doesn't do it again."

Barnes' takeaway is one of 12 the defense generated over the last eight regular-season games, twice what it had through the first eight games. Meanwhile, tighter red-zone defense saw Green Bay surrender 39 fewer points (4.9 per game) in the second half of the year than the first.

Winning the battle on the ground also has played into the Packers' fortunes. Rushing champion Derrick Henry was held under 100 yards against Green Bay in Week 16. The following week? He bulldozed through Houston for 250 yards to launch over 2,000 for the season.

David Montgomery, one month after breaking a 57-yard run against Green Bay in Week 12, had just 69 yards on 22 carries last Sunday at Soldier Field.

In the end, the Packers finished inside the top 10 in total defense (334.0 yards per game) for the first time in a decade. As the gold rush continues on offense, Green Bay's defense is holding up its end of the bargain, as well.

"I think it's been critical," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "The red-zone defense has been exceptional over the last month of the season and we need that to continue. Because now come playoff time, everything gets a little bit tighter, every team is pretty equally competitive and it's going to be a tough game."

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