The defense has been on the field for too many plays.
Far too many plays.
The Packers’ defense has played 363 snaps in five games, or 72.6 per game. Put that over 16 games, and the Packers’ defense is on pace to play 1,162 snaps. That would be a league record, eclipsing the 1,159 snaps played by the Chiefs’ defense in 1984 and the Browns’ defense in 2000.
“We’ve been on the field too much defensively, and I think you have to look at everything that contributes to that,” coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday. “Offensively, we need to have some longer drives. We haven’t really had the production there in the seven-plus-play drives that we are accustomed to, so that’s something that will help that. And defensively, we need to continue to work to get off the field. That’s not the goal. We’re aware of it. It’s five games. It’s definitely something that we’re aware of and focused on.”
Through the first five games of last season, the Packers had 13 scoring drives of at least seven plays. Through the first five games of this season, the Packers have 11 scoring drives of at least seven plays. So, that’s not an enormous problem. The average drive for the entire season lasted 5.8 snaps in 2013 compared to 5.4 for 2014. That’s not a huge problem, either.
Rather, it’s the amount of time being consumed on those drives, which is what you’d expect with the Packers picking up the offensive pace. At this point last season, Green Bay had four scoring drives of at least 5:30. This season, it has only one.
It’s easy — and correct — to point to the up-tempo offensive approach as a reason. It should be pointed out, however, the defense’s big-play ways have played a role, too. Julius Peppers’ pick-six put the defense right back on the field against the Vikings. And Green Bay’s offense already has almost as many touchdown drives of less than 40 yards this season (four) as it had all of last season (five).
The big plays notwithstanding, the Packers’ defense must do a better job of winning on third down. Green Bay finished last season tied for 17th, with an opponent conversion rate of 38.2 percent. This season, Green Bay ranks a miserable 29th, with opponents moving the chains 48.6 percent of the time.
“Our ability to get off the field on third down has a big impact on that,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this week.
While the third-down struggles haven’t shown up on the scoreboard, they have shown up on the play counts. This year, the average drive against Green Bay’s defense has lasted 6.8 snaps and it’s on pace to force 26 three-and-outs. Last year, the average drive lasted 5.6 snaps and it forced 38 three-and-out possessions.
Even the 2011 defense, which statistically was one of the worst in NFL history, was better with 5.7 snaps per possession and 32 three-and-outs.
With the defense on the field for at least 71 plays in each of the last four games, the extra rest from the Thursday game was a blessing. A bye in three weeks should help, too.
“We have played a bunch of plays, you’re right,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “It helps any time you get a little bit of time to rest and recover, yeah. It’s good. Hopefully you can’t, like I said, any kind of little things guys have you don’t want to build up and have a problem. I think 70-some plays was last week. The last three or four weeks, we’ve had 70-some plays. So, yeah. We know it’s a long year, so hopefully you can knock that down a little bit with a couple extra days.”
Capers spoke with optimism about his defense on Monday. During the last three games, his unit allowed a total of 37 points. The pass rush was the best of his tenure. It’s forced eight turnovers in the last three games. While the third-down defense has been made, the red-zone defense has been excellent. So, there’s plenty to like.
However, will any of it matter if the defense is worn down in December and can’t make a critical stop late in those games? Of the 20 teams that played the most snaps in NFL history, only five reached the playoffs and only the 1993 Bills played in the Super Bowl.
“The one thing we’ve got to do a better job of is we’ve got to finish off a game,” Capers said. “I think at the end of three quarters, (the Vikings) had 123 yards and no points, and I think they have something like 176 yards in the fourth quarter on 30 plays and 10 points. We’ve had that happen to us a couple times. You know, the Detroit game, we had a very similar game going, and we kind of let them off the hook in the fourth quarter, so we’ve got to really go to work and try to find a way the same way we did the first three quarters and be able to finish it off fourth quarter.”
Most defensive snaps, NFL history
Four teams on record pace