Red zone redemption
By Mark Concannon
January 13, 2011
The Packers play the Falcons Saturday night in a state that hosts America's most prestigious golf tournament. An old adage from the links certainly applies here when talking about a crucial factor in determining the winner of this NFC semifinal matchup; it's not how you drive, it's how you arrive.
Green Bay played at the Georgia Dome in late November and outgained Atlanta 418-294. The Packers moved inside the Falcons 20-yard line, inside the coveted red zone four times but scored just 17 points, failing to get into the end zone on their first two opportunities, missing the chance to take the crowd out of the game and set the tone.
"We came away with one field goal and had a turnover on the other drive," said wide receiver Jordy Nelson. "It's huge. It cost us the game. We need touchdowns, period."
Nelson was a star deep in Falcons territory that day. His 28-yard reception to the Atlanta one-yard line set up the Packers first touchdown in the third quarter. Nelson caught a 10-yard TD pass from Aaron Rodgers to tie the game with just over five minutes left in regulation.
The way the network highlights played later that night showed the contest was decided by Matt Bryant's field goal in the final seconds. But a closer look reveals the outcome was determined well before that in the Packers second and third possessions of the game.
Late in the first quarter, Green Bay trailed 3-0 and had a third and one at the Atlanta four-yard line. Dmitri Nance was stuffed for no gain and after marching 67 yards on nine plays, eating up over five minutes, the Packers had to settle for a field goal and a tie instead of a crowd-quieting touchdown and the lead.
It was still 3-3 when the Packers began their next drive in the second quarter at their own 15-yard line. Rodgers marched the club 83 yards to set up a first and goal at the two. On first down, Rodgers overthrew Quinn Johnson. On second down, Rodgers called an audible and dove to the one-yard line. On third down, Rodgers called a sneak again, was hit and fumbled into the end zone. Atlanta recovered for a touchback and drove 80-yards the other way producing a 14-point swing that forever changed the game.
"Red zone, we had 17 points in four possessions, " Rodgers said. "That's just not going to cut it against a good team like Atlanta."
"It's important for us to get touchdowns in the red zone and not field goals," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "We just need to take a look at the last game we played against them to learn from that."
The Falcons ball control offense was paced by Michael Turner, the NFL's 6th leading rusher in 2010, who was number one in the league in total offensive plays at 1,097, a remarkable average of over 68 snaps per game. When Atlanta's offense takes the field, opponents usually don't see the football again for quite some time. The Packers had nine total possessions against the Falcons in November, but one of those was Rodgers kneeling down to end the first half and another consisted of just one play; a Rodgers desperation pass as time expired. So in reality, Green Bay had just seven opportunities to move the football.
"You gotta figure you gotta score almost every time you have the ball," said guard Daryn Colledge. "When you get the ball so few times and they eat up as much clock as Atlanta does, you gotta make the most of your opportunities. You've gotta score touchdowns. You've gotta give your defense a chance. So we've got to find a way to score every time we have the ball. Because we don't know if it's going to be six times or it's going to be nine times that we're going to have it."
"They're gonna control the ball," Rodgers said. "Matt's (Ryan) gonna eliminate his mistakes and they're gonna run the ball with Michael Turner. Our defense needs to get off the field and we need to sustain those drives and put them in the end zone for seven."
Of course when an offense has moved inside the opponents 20-yard line, the defense has less territory to cover. Does the lack of available real estate impact plays calls and execution?
"You'd like to say the mentality is no different, hopefully every play is important to you," Colledge said. "But you understand once you get in the red zone, things get a little confined, things get tighter. Windows get smaller and you've got to be at your best when you're in those situations."
The Packers were at their best in that department last Sunday in Philadelphia when three trips inside the red zone resulted in three touchdowns. Colledge said a great example of the physical and mental sharpness needed to succeed deep in enemy territory happened on Green Bay's final touchdown. Faced with a second and goal from the 16 after Colledge was called for a holding penalty, Rodgers floated a screen pass to Brandon Jackson, who could have blazed ahead immediately for a certain sizeable gain, but instead waited for a convoy of blockers to form and walked over the goal line.
"The credit goes to Brandon to have the patience to hold up," Colledge said. "A lot of guys would have taken the five or ten yards and been happy. He allowed the blocks to set up and I think that shows the great maturity and awareness that he has as a player."
In the first meeting with Green Bay, Atlanta ran just 57 plays against what turned out to be the NFL's 5th ranked defense. The Falcons feel a similar red zone sense of urgency.
"Green Bay has a good defense," said Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan. "They don't allow people to get into the red zone very often and they're stingy when you do get into the red zone. It's gonna be a tough challenge for us."
The Packers rushed for only 77 yards in the game at Atlanta six weeks ago. Having an effective ground attack like they did last week in Philadelphia, where James Starks, not active for the previous Falcon game, ran for 123 yards on 23 carries, could provide a huge boost on short yardage situations, especially on goal-to-go inside the five-yard line.
"Last time, I was the leading rusher," said Rodgers, who gained 51 yards on 12 carries. "Let's hope that's not the case again."
On Saturday night, the Packers want to outgain the Falcons, just like they did in November. They want to move the football again, going on the drives, but changing the outcome of how they arrive.
"You need to just realize that it's the playoffs," Rodgers said. "Each possession has to have more importance and significance. There's an urgency level that picks up for all the guys knowing what we're playing for."