By kicking field goals of 18 and 19 yards in the first quarter off two of those turnovers, the Packers passed on fourth-down opportunities near the goal line that could have dug the Seahawks an ever deeper hole.
Coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to take the easy points came down to, more than anything, what he saw on the plays previous to the first fourth-and-1 on the Packers’ second offensive possession following HaHa Clinton-Dix’s interception.
“I actually had called the fourth-down play when I called it on the headsets, that my third- and fourth-down calls would be ‘93-Iso, Wing Right,’” McCarthy said on Wednesday at his season-ending press conference. “With that, the penetration I saw on the second down, I saw it again on the third down on the back side. That’s why I decided to kick the field goal there.”
The Packers’ offense barely had time to rest on the sideline before it had the ball again. Brad Jones forced a Doug Baldwin fumble on the ensuing kickoff that was recovered by Morgan Burnett at the Seahawks’ 23. Five plays later, after safety Earl Thomas made a heady play to stop Randall Cobb for a 5-yard gain. Officially, it was fourth-and-goal again at the 1 though, in reality, Cobb was tackled outside the 1.
“If I recall, that was (closer to) fourth-and-2, so I took the points there,” McCarthy said. “I know there was one more a little higher in the red zone (in the second quarter). I mean, I think it’s convenient to go for it now but, like I said, you have a game plan. You feel how you match up going into the game, was very confident with the defense going into it and just the way they started. Eleven series into the game, our defense had kept our opponent to zero points. That’s where my confidence was.”
The Packers also passed on going for two other fourth-and-1s during the game. Ahead 16-0 at the 11:05 mark of the third quarter, McCarthy sent in Tim Masthay to punt from the Packers’ 48. And at the 9:42 mark of the second quarter, after Eddie Lacy had been stopped short by O’Brien Schofield and Bobby Wagner on a third-and-3 at the Seahawks’ 22, McCarthy sent in Mason Crosby for a 40-yard field goal to extend the lead to 16-0.
Three weeks earlier, in a division-clinching win over the Detroit Lions, McCarthy made the more aggressive decision in nearly the same situation, granted the Packers were playing at Lambeau Field in front of a home crowd. In that clash, after forcing the Lions to punt on the game’s first drive, the Packers drove to the 1, where Lacy was stuffed by Ziggy Ansah on a fourth-and-goal. The Packers actually had three previous shots from the 1-yard line after a pass interference penalty and went John Kuhn for no gain, Aaron Rodgers incomplete to Andrew Quarless and Rodgers incomplete to Jordy Nelson before the Lacy run. On the first two plays, McCarthy went to his jumbo offensive line package — with extra offensive linemen Lane Taylor and J.C. Tretter reporting eligible — yet were unable to gain the necessary yard.
Taylor and Tretter also came in on the two plays previous to the first fourth-and-1 in Seattle. On a second-and-goal from the 1, a Kuhn run was initially ruled a touchdown until a replay review showed he was down just short of the goal line. Then Lacy was stopped for no gain on third-and-goal before giving way to Crosby’s 18-yarder for the game’s first score.
While Taylor and Tretter are backups on the offensive line who struggled in limited opportunities this past season, McCarthy on Wednesday stood up for his starting five’s short-yardage run blocking.
“I don’t agree that they struggle at the goal line,” he responded to a direct question. “You know, playing on the road and playing at home is different down there. I think we all recognize that. Goal line, there’s some things that we’ll look at and we can probably get creative in doing some things there. But I thought our run blocking as a whole, I was impressed with it. I felt like there were a number of times that the goal-line runs we had, we were able to crease the defense and score.”
Looking specifically at fourth-and-1s over the course of the season (based off information provided by the NFL’s Game Statistics Information System Web site), the Packers went for it five times, converting two first downs. Three times they went with running plays (one first down) and twice passing plays (one first down).
The Seahawks’ defense, on the other hand, has allowed seven first downs on eight fourth-and-1 plays from scrimmage. Six first downs came via the run and one via the pass.
Seattle did, however, rank No. 2 in the league in stuff percentage, a statistic provided by SportingCharts.com that factors the number of times a team stops its opponent behind the line of scrimmage vs. total rushing attempts. The Lions were No. 1 in the league and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were third.
In a Dec. 21 game at Tampa, the Packers in the third quarter were stopped on three straight plays from the 1, the last being an incomplete pass to Randall Cobb on fourth down with the Packers holding a 10-3 lead. Later in the game, McCarthy chose to bring on Crosby for a 25-yard field goal on a fourth-and-2 from the 7 to extend the lead to 13-3. And Rodgers finally did convert a red zone touchdown in that game, throwing a 1-yarder to Nelson with 2:45 remaining in the game, but only before incomplete passes on first and second down.
So, late in the season, the red zone offense had its challenges.
“You’ve got to look at execution first. We just didn’t execute very well,” said Rodgers last week on his radio show of his unit’s performance in the red zone against the Seahawks. “We had some opportunities to get the drives that we had against Seattle, we had some opportunities to get touchdowns there and didn’t make the most of them. Down there in the red zone, especially the tight red zone, it’s all about tight windows in the passing game and you’ve got to have accurate throws and you’ve got to be able to move some guys off the ball in the run game.”
Off the five turnovers in the NFC Championship, the Packers’ offense started at the Seattle 19 (after Mike Daniels’ 15-yard taunting penalty), the Seattle 23, their 44 (after Clay Matthews’ 15-yard penalty for a blindside hit on Russell Wilson), their 20 and their 43 (when Burnett gave himself up after just a 4-yard return).
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org