First Down Explains Units' Overall Production
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First Down Explains Units' Overall Production

Offensively, Green Bay hasn't been nearly as productive on first down compared to last season. Defensively, the Packers are vastly improved. With help from both coordinators and stats you won't see anywhere else, we take a look at what might be the key to Sunday's game at Detroit.

Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements used much of the bye week looking for answers to improve an offense that was good but not great during the first half of the season.

"We have a couple of points of emphasis and we drive them home and hopefully it gets reflected in our play," Clements said, declining to talk in specifics.

One area that likely was part of the emphasis, an area that could loom large on Sunday at Detroit, is the offense's play on first down.

The Packers have consistently put themselves behind the offensive eight-ball by averaging 4.86 yards on first down. That's a woeful 28th in the league – a surprising ranking considering the greatness of Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and the team's otherwise glittering offensive track record.

That runs head-long into a Detroit defense that ranks third with 4.65 yards allowed on first down.

Taken together, that's a potential recipe for trouble considering Detroit's pass rush, Green Bay's reshuffled offensive line and the noise of Ford Field.

"If they can get you in third-and-long, it's to their advantage," Clements said. "You want to stay out of third-and-longs, and one way to do that is to do well on first down. We like to stay on schedule, so we want to eliminate negative-yardage plays or penalties or sacks or anything that's going to make it difficult to get into a manageable third-down situation."

The obvious sore spot for the league's 19th ranked offense – a significant number as a Mike McCarthy-coached Packers team has never finished outside the top 10 -- has been the running game. According to the NFL's media-only statistics site, the Packers rank 12th with 124 rushing attempts on first-and-10 but just 22nd with 470 yards. The site does not include a ranking for yards per first-down rushing attempt, but based on the rankings in attempts and yards, the 3.79-yard average has to rank toward the bottom of the league.

Even the passing game hasn't been on point. The Packers are 18th with 113 attempts but 23rd with 698 yards, producing an average of 6.19 yards per attempt.

In both phases, Green Bay is 27th in turning first-and-10 directly into a first down, having done it seven times on the ground (5.7 percent) and 29 times through the air (25.7 percent).

If any one statistical segment can explain why the Packers' scoring output is down 9.0 points per game over last season, it's first down. The running game is about the same at 3.73 yards per first-down attempt, but the passing game has taken a significant dip after being off-the-charts explosive last year. Despite ranking 15th in first-down passing attempts, Green Bay was fifth in yards for a lofty 9.63-yard average. First-and-10 turned into another first-and-10 36.2 percent of the time.

The Packers somewhat have overcome this year's first-down deficiencies. They rank 12th on third down with a 41.7 percent conversion rate and they're up to 10th in scoring with 26.6 points per game.

Still, more success on first down would be helpful, especially against the desperate Lions. Clements said he breaks third down into three distance categories, with 1 to 5 yards being ideal, followed by 6 to 10 yards and 11-plus yards.

"There's no magic answer to that," Clements said of improving the first-down output. "You analyze what you're doing, you try to get a good plan, try to have guys make plays when they have the opportunity, try to call plays and design plays to give guys an opportunity to be successful. All of those things combine, and then you have to go out and execute."

On the other side of the ball, Green Bay has shown dramatic improvement, which goes a long way toward explaining the unit's overall improvement.

Last season, Green Bay ranked 31st with 6.82 yards allowed per first-down play and, as a byproduct, finished 19th with 22.4 points allowed per game. This season, the Packers rank 10th with 5.25 yards allowed on first down and are up to ninth with 20.8 points allowed per game.

Detroit, on the other hand, is sixth with 5.98 yards per first-down play.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers' goal is to win 57 percent of the time on first down, meaning holding the opponent to 3 yards or less. For the season, he said his unit's at 55 percent and has eclipsed that 57 percent a few times in recent weeks.

"People talk a lot about third down but maybe the most important down is first down," Capers said. "I say that because, if you're calling the game, first down has a big influence on how you call the game. If people are controlling first down and they always keep you at a down-and-distance disadvantage to where it's always second-and-5 or second-and-4, you're calling a different game than if it's second-and-8 or -9.

"We've always emphasized, let's win first down and get things to our advantage to where we can do all those things we like to do. We can't do all those things if we're always fighting an uphill battle. That's where teams, if they can come in and run the ball and they can run it in there for 4, 5, 6 yards, that can make for a long day."

Powering that improvement is a better run defense and better pass rush. Since Week 4, Green Bay leads the league in run defense (79.7 yards per game) and yards per carry (3.5), regardless of down-and-distance situations. Plus, of Green Bay's second-ranked 28 sacks, 10 have come on first down, Capers said.

"If you can play good run defense on first and second down and you can get 23 sacks on first and second down, that's a combination you're looking for," Capers said. "From a philosophy standpoint, that's where it starts: stop the run, get them into predictable situations and then be able to pressure the passer."


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.