The blame for blowing a 17-0 halftime advantage can be spread around from the defense not being able to get off the field to Ryan Longwell missing field goals, but one overlooked area may have been the ultimate reason they could not survive the Vikings' comeback. The Packers could not come through on third-and-short (three yards or less) in the second half.
Converting just one first down in four attempts in such situations proved to be destructive. The Packers had to punt twice and settle for a Longwell field goal on what could have been a game-winning touchdown drive because of their failure to convert. As a result of not keeping the last drive alive and settling for a field goal, the Vikings' offense had just enough time (17 seconds) to position kicker Paul Edinger for a game-winning 56-yard field goal. When that kick went through the uprights, the Packers effectively saw their season go up in flames.
A facet of the game like third-and-short may seem minor in many respects, but it really provides underlying signs in many ways why the Packers are 1-5 this season. Their increasing ineffectiveness in crucial short-yardage situations indicates a lack of ability and execution, which affects confidence and decision-making. Without that, it becomes nearly impossible to win games in the NFL.
Remember the past couple of years when the Packers were nearly automatic in third- and fourth-and-short situations? It was as easy as run right, run left with Ahman Green or Najeh Davenport to keep the drive alive. They beat teams down physically and mentally with their remarkable rate of 82% conversions (41 of 50 on third- and fourth-and-one).
At the peak of their rushing dominance in 2003, tackle Mark Tauscher said that even if the opposition knew what play was coming in short-yardage situations, the Packers knew they would convert. They won a playoff game that season against the Seahawks largely because of such dominance running in goal-line situations.
The Packers have lost that edge this year. Whereas in the past, a two-yard run on third-and-one could keep a drive alive and win a game and maybe even cover up some other team deficiencies, the failure to get those two yards this year has resulted in the opposite.
Last Sunday, the Packers should have put an already-defeated Vikings team away with the running game in the second half, but were unable to do so. Instead, they went to the pass on a third-and-two and a third-and-three and both throws fell incomplete to halt drives. The final failed attempt on third-and-short, a third-and-two from the Vikings' 21-yard line on the Packers' final drive, resulted in a pathetic-looking, ill-conceived play out of a shotgun formation where Tony Fisher carried for a loss of one yard.
Had the Packers converted any of the third-and-short situations in the second half against the Vikings, they would have chewed up more possession time and probably would have scored on their final drive with the momentum they were gaining. Then they would have had a shot at the end zone for a dramatic victory at the Metrodome and a possible season-changing moment. Instead, they are a last-place team in the NFC North Division with a bleak outlook.
Green and Davenport are out for the season with injuries. That leaves third-stringer Fisher, two recent signings in ReShard Lee and Walt Williams, and several reasons to believe that next season has to be better.
New Packers' guards Will Whitticker and Adrian Klemm have to shoulder some of the blame for the short-yardage decline, though they are not the entire problem. They have been able to cover up for the loss of Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera in some areas, but have not yet shown the ability to mash people along the line of scrimmage when it is critical to do so. With an injury-riddled and struggling Mike Flanagan at center, that does not figure to change anytime soon.
As a result, head coach Mike Sherman and offensive coordinator Tom Rossley cannot count on the run to continue to wear down an opponent, keep drives alive, or finish off games. Thus, they are left with indecision in their play-calling when they need just one, two, or three yards on third down because the singular option of passing is no way to run a dynamic offense. It is also not productive.
Editor's note: Matt Tevsh lives in Green Bay and is entering his 10th season covering the Green Bay Packers for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.