Aaron Rodgers and Co. make it look easy.
The Packers rank second in the NFL in red-zone efficiency, with nine touchdowns in 12 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. One of those failures came last week, when John Kuhn rumbled for 8 yards, a game-clinching first down and into the red zone in the final moments.
Rodgers' statistics look like a typo. In 36 career starts, he has thrown 41 touchdown passes against no interceptions. That's right: His touchdown-to-interception ratio is 41-to-0. That includes a 5-to-0 ledger this year.
"That's been a key point up in the offensive meetings. Get in the red zone, we've got to score," said tight end Jermichael Finley, whose only red zone reception went for a 13-yard touchdown. "We don't want three points, we want six. It's been a big emphasis on offense, so we're trying to convert once we get in the red zone."
Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements is the architect of the Packers' weekly red zone plan. He does his film study on Monday and Tuesday and presents his plan to coach Mike McCarthy and tight ends coach Ben McAdoo on Wednesday.
"The biggest thing is, what we harp on is, is we don't want to get any negative-yardage plays," Clements told Packer Report on Thursday. "You want to avoid sacks, you want to avoid penalties, and we're doing a pretty good job down there. The biggest thing beyond that is we tell them that in the red zone, things happen quicker so you have to be more precise. There's less room for the defense to defend against. You have to be sharp, you have to know what you're doing. Lastly, which is probably the biggest thing, is we have guys who make plays. Aaron's made some great throws, we made some great catches, the line has blocked well, the running backs have blocked well. You need all of those guys working at a high level in that area because it's an important area and it's harder."
All of that was on display on Rodgers' touchdown to Finley last week. Finley got a great release and beat former Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson at the line of scrimmage. That put Peterson in chase position, but with safety help behind him, all was not lost. Rodgers, however, threw a dart to Finley between the defenders.
Finley's red zone touchdown.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"That was a great play," Clements said. "It was a great throw and a great catch because they had it defended pretty well. If you're precise in doing what you're supposed to do, you have a chance to be successful. That would be a good illustration."
As always, it all starts — and sometimes ends — up front. One of the red zone failures came when Mark Tauscher's holding call wiped out a touchdown pass to Finley at Chicago. It's been a rare blunder, though, from a line that benefits from center Scott Wells' expert ability to pick up blitzes.
"There's some defenses that do (blitz more) in some area of the red zone," Wells said. "You have to communicate, execute. I think Aaron's making good decisions with the football when we've thrown it. Running game close to the goal line is where it needs to be. We usually have a rushing touchdown somewhere. So, I think our execution has been improved in the red zone."
Wells is right. Not that it's a large sample, but the Packers are 3-for-3 in scoring touchdowns on running plays from the 3-yard line and in. That includes touchdown runs by Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn.
It's close to the goal line where Rodgers' athleticism is truly an asset. His ability to stress a defense with a run-pass option puts it in a bind, which was the case on his 3-yard scramble for a score at Chicago. And, of course, it helps that Rodgers is incredibly accurate when he's throwing the ball. Against Detroit, Greg Jennings got one step on his defender and Rodgers threw a perfect ball for a 17-yard touchdown.
"Well, he's outstanding because he's accurate, he makes a quick decision — and he usually makes a good decision — and he usually gets the ball out quick," Clements said. "All of those things are helpful when you're down there in a tight space."
The best ever
If you like the Rodgers' red zone stat, here's another one: With 17 sacks in his first 20 games, Clay Matthews has more sacks than any player in NFL history to start a career.
Matthews wasn't aware that his sack against Detroit set the record.
"That's cool," Matthews said. "Yeah, that's something special. I like to think it's a testament to my hard work and everything I put into this game and also my teammates. It's great to have started like that but now it's time to keep it up for the next 20 games and just continue that trend."
In last year's draft, Washington took Brian Orakpo at No. 13 overall while Green Bay traded three picks to move back into the first round to get Matthews at No. 26. Orakpo beat out Matthews for the rookie sack title last season, 11 to 10. Or, by Matthews' count, it was an 11-11 tie if you count the playoffs.
This year, Matthews has seven sacks compared to Orakpo's two.
"I've watched him and he's definitely picked up his game, especially from last year," Matthews said. "He's a tremendous athlete. There's no doubt why he was their first-round pick and 13th overall pick. I know last year he finished one ahead of me in the regular-season sack race. He's off to a great start. I remember seeing him draw a holding penalty that ended up helping them win the game, so he's making his presence felt."
Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin knows a little something about both guys after watching Orakpo on film all week and getting a steady diet of Matthews at practice.
"I like him. I think he's good," Philbin said. "He's a very talented athlete. He's got a good combination of both speed and power. Sometimes, you can get yourself ready for a game when a guy's going to try to run around you and just beat you speed, speed, speed. That's a challenge in itself, but when you combine his ability to beat you around the corner with an ability to get his hands on you and push you back and play with leverage and play with some power, that makes it doubly tough."
With rookie Morgan Burnett lost for the season with a torn ACL, the Packers have been tight-lipped about the new starter. Whether it's Derrick Martin or Charlie Peprah, there won't be a wealth of experience lining up as the last line of defense. Martin and Peprah each have made one NFL start at the position.
Derrick Martin replaced Morgan Burnett last week.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Well, maybe not. First of all, Bigby has to prove he's ready. After skipping all of the offseason work in a contract dispute, Bigby hasn't taken a single snap since the playoff loss at Arizona.
"It's one thing to do all the drill work but it takes a little time to get back into football shape," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said when asked about Bigby and cornerback Al Harris. "One thing the rule gives us is three weeks to work those guys and kind of see where they are. Really, it's hard to answer until you see them out on the field going through a full practice and how they respond. I think that both these guys are working real hard to get back. We'll be excited to see them back on the field to see where they are."
Peprah and Martin, of course, have a little something to say on the matter. If Peprah, for instance, plays well, the coaches will have no reason to move Bigby back into the lineup.
"You always want to go out there and play well for the sake of playing well and improving your situation," Peprah said. "Who knows when Atari comes back if it's going to be his spot, be D. Martin's spot, my spot. I don't know what they're thinking. If somebody's playing well, roll with the hot hand, I would guess."
The big mystery
That will be the story line on Sunday.
Washington's bread-and-butter on offense is moving quarterback Donovan McNabb outside the pocket. That will stress two areas where the Packers' defense has been atrocious: stopping opposing tight ends and preventing long quarterback scrambles.
The Lions' tight ends combined for 14 catches last week, and in four games, opposing tight ends have caught 24 of a targeted 35 passes (68.6 percent). Barnett and Chillar were the Packers' top linebackers in coverage, so the Redskins figure to attack A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop with standout Chris Cooley and budding Fred Davis.
"In my mind, Cooley is one of the better tight ends in the league because he can do both. He's an excellent blocker and a very good receiver," Capers said. "A smart player, physical player. Has made big plays up the field. They do a great job with their play-action passing game because it comes off their running game. You saw last week against the Eagles, they really got their running game going early and it opens up things for their play-pass game. McNabb's very good at the bootleg game because he can still run and put pressure on the defense that way, and he's got a strong arm so he can throw the ball to anyplace on the field. Their tight ends are a big part of their offense."
Meanwhile, opposing quarterbacks have rushed 21 times for 205 yards (9.8 average) compared to 70 carries for 268 yards (3.8 average) by the running backs. McNabb, who is averaging 10.1 yards per rush this season, ran for 107 yards in the infamous fourth-and-26 playoff loss at Philadelphia.
"All you've got to do is watch him run around," Capers said. "That's an area that we've tried to address and take care of. I think our run defense, when they're handing the ball off, has been pretty good. That part of our game has not been as good. Now, with Michael Vick in the first game, you kind of understand that. (The Bears' Jay) Cutler had three runs for 37 and I think last week (the Lions' Shaun Hill) had four for 53. That's too much."
The Packers are entering the meat of their schedule but, thus far, the schedule doesn't look as daunting as it did before the season. The cumulative record of their opponents is 26-35. With games against Washington, Miami, Minnesota, the Jets and Dallas before the bye, those five teams are 9-9.
— Not only is Charles Woodson the Packers' career leader for pick-sixes and defensive touchdowns, but he's one of three players in NFL history with 10 interception-return touchdowns (Rod Woodson has 12 and Darren Sharper has 11) and the only player in league history with a pick-six in five consecutive seasons.
— If you're down on the Packers' special teams, this won't make you feel any better. Since 2000, the Bears lead the NFL with 20 touchdowns on kickoff returns and punt returns, followed by the Jets and Browns with 15 and the Raiders and Bills with 14. The Packers have had seven return touchdowns (six on punts) while allowing five.
— Green Bay leads the all-time series 17-12-1, including four in a row. McCarthy is 1-0 against Washington, with Charles Woodson's 57-yard fumble return for a touchdown with 2:05 remaining sparking the 17-14 win on Oct. 14, 2007. Woodson had two fumble recoveries and an interception in the game, while Brett Favre set the NFL's career record for interceptions. This will be the Packers' third game in Washington in the last 31 years, with the Packers winning 28-14 in 2004 despite Favre being carted off the field with a knee injury, and losing 38-21 in 1979.
— Before the Redskins were the Redskins, they were the Boston Braves. The Packers and Braves squared off for the 1936 NFL championship at the Polo Grounds in New York, with Green Bay winning 21-6. Arnie Herber's 48-yard touchdown pass to Don Hutson in the opening minutes got the Packers rolling in their first appearance in the championship game. The game was moved to New York by the league because Braves owner George Preston Marshall, upset with the lack of fan support in Boston, was relocating the team to Washington.
— The most famous game of the series, of course, is the Packers' 48-47 win at Lambeau Field on "Monday Night Football" on Oct. 17, 1983. Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy was an All-Pro safety for the Redskins that year.
— With 259 passing yards, Rodgers will reach 10,000 for his career. October has been his month, with career 72.3 percent accuracy with 16 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 116.1 rating. He's seeking his eighth consecutive October start with a 100-plus rating.
— On the other hand, McNabb is a ridiculous 46-2 when his passer rating tops 100. His best career game against the Packers in December 2004, when he completed 32-of-43 passes for career highs of 464 yards and five touchdowns.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.