Third down used to be the Green Bay Packers’ playground.
Last season, Green Bay converted 47.2 percent of the time, including a blistering 51.4 percent during the final eight games of the season. That marked the Packers’ eighth consecutive top-10 finish. The Saints were the only other team to claim that accomplishment.
This year, the playground sand has been replaced by quicksand. The Packers enter Sunday’s game against Detroit ranked 27th with a feeble conversion rate of 34.1 percent. That’s the worst mark of the Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers era.
“Clearly, we need to be more consistent in situational football,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said a day after the Carolina game. “Third down, again, showed up this past game. We’ve got to clean up that area. That was emphasized again today. I think our guys understand what needs to happen, from protecting our quarterback as a unit and winning our 1-on-1 battles.”
If this were a three-act play, getting to this point would be like skipping Acts 1 and 2. For Green Bay, its third-down follies start on first down. The Packers are averaging 4.82 yards per first-down play, according to league data. That ranks a woeful 30th in the league and is almost three-quarters of a yard worse than the league average of 5.54.
Against Carolina, the Packers lined up for 37 first-down snaps. They failed to gain yardage on 13 of them and finished right at their season average for first-down yardage. Against Denver, the Packers lined up for 22 first-down snaps. They failed to gain yardage on eight of them and averaged 3.77 yards per first-down snap.
“I think that’s a big issue with our third-down play,” Rodgers said on Wednesday. “I think we had 11 of the 14 third downs were at least eight-plus (vs. Carolina). It’s going to be tough to convert those when you have those long-yardage situations. You need to have more third-and-1-to-5s, where we have a better chance of converting those percentage-wise. That gives you more opportunities, obviously first downs, more plays. You have more shots and can tire the defense out. Keep our defense on the sideline.”
That hasn’t been happening, however. After converting 6-of-10 vs. Chicago in Week 1, the Packers’ success rate is a horrendous 30.8 percent. Not once in the last five games has Green Bay converted more than one-third of the time, culminating in 2-of-8 (25.0 percent) and 3-of-14 (21.4 percent) in back-to-back losses against the superb defenses fielded by Denver and Carolina, respectively.
Last year, Green Bay was successful regardless of the down-and-distance scenario. On third-down plays requiring 7-plus yards, the Packers converted a league-high 39.6 percent of the time. On third-and-10-plus, Green Bay also led the league at 36.5 percent.
On third down from 2009 through 2014, Rodgers had a league-high 112.7 passer rating with 62 touchdowns vs. 13 interceptions, including a 121.7 rating with 15 touchdowns and two picks last year. This season, Rodgers ranks 13th in passer rating at 91.7 with three touchdowns and one interception.
That’s a major point of emphasis for the reigning MVP.
“We have to convert third downs,” Rodgers said. “I have to be more accurate on third downs and give us more opportunities. When we’re converting those third downs, it gives us a chance to run the football again on first and second down. It gives us a chance to take some shots in the action game. So, I need to be better on third downs and I will this week.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.