First-Down ‘O' Gets Grounded

We examine what's gone right and what's gone wrong on first down, starting with Sunday at St. Louis, when Ryan Grant was going nowhere fast but Aaron Rodgers was on a roll.

Last week against St. Louis, the Packers faced third-and-5 or less only one time the entire game. As a consequence, Green Bay moved the chains on only 2-of-9 third-down plays.

That was a continuation of a season-long trend. Through three games, the Packers rank 23rd in the NFL in third-down conversions at just 33 percent.

"First down has not been a positive so far this year," coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday. "I think it was evident really (Sunday) and our first two games. The second-and-longs that we're playing in is definitely not in our favor of playing downhill. So that will be an emphasis as we get going. But clearly, we have to do a better job running or throwing it on first down."

Actually, throwing it on first down wasn't a problem against the Rams. Whether McCarthy was simply trying to get something going on the ground after abandoning it the week before or whether he was being stubborn, the Packers moved the ball with remarkable efficiency through the air but remarkable inefficiency on the ground at St. Louis.

On first down, Aaron Rodgers completed 8-of-10 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown. Five of those completions immediately set up another first down.

Meanwhile, Ryan Grant carried the ball 17 times for 34 yards on first down against the Rams. His best runs were a pair of 5-yarders, one of which came on first-and-goal from the 6 and set up a touchdown. However, nine carries went for 1 yard or less, including minus-1 twice.

On the bright side, at least Rodgers wasn't sacked on first down against the Rams. He was sacked three times apiece by the Bears and Bengals.

That McCarthy was so willing to stick with the run on first down might help to explain why Rodgers was so successful when he was given an opportunity to throw on first down.

"Anytime you can have balance in your play-calling, I think it plays to the strength of your offense," McCarthy said.

That balance was missing against the Bengals, when the Packers ran the ball on first down seven times but dropped back to throw 23 times (20 passes, three sacks).

In the second and third quarters against Cincinnati, when the Packers were leading or trailing by three points, McCarthy discarded his list of running plays. In the second quarter, Grant carried once on first down for 8 yards while Rodgers threw three passes and was sacked once. In the third quarter, Grant ran once for 1 yard on first down while Rodgers threw five passes and was sacked once. Even in the fourth quarter, when the Packers trailed 24-21, Grant got just one first-down carry while Rodgers threw three passes and was sacked once.

While some of that disparity can be pegged on Rodgers going with a pass when given a run-pass option at the line of scrimmage, those skewed figures fall at the feet of the play-caller.

The Packers actually ran the ball with promise on first down against Chicago, with Grant picking up 48 yards and a touchdown on 10 first-down carries. Rodgers threw nine passes on first down but was sacked three times.

Through three games, Rodgers is 24-of-39 for 315 yards and a touchdown on first-down, giving him a passer rating of 95.6. He's been sacked six times. The running game has accumulated 105 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries, for an average of 3.1 yards per first-down attempt.


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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 and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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