Third Down Is Robinson's Plan

Unlike some teams, Mike McCarthy delegates specific phases of the offense to his assistant coaches. Receivers coach Jimmy Robinson is the man who designs the Packers' winning third-down plan. Get inside the game-planning process in this story just for subscribers.

The one tried-and-true statistic in the NFL is turnover margin.

The most-overlooked statistic in the game, however, is third-down success.

The Packers rank fifth in the NFL in third-down offense, moving the chains 46 percent of the time. Of the top 16 teams in that statistic, only Tennessee and Houston have losing records and only Arizona ranks outside the top 15 among division leaders. The cumulative winning percentage of the top 10 teams is .683, with undefeated Indianapolis ranking first, 10-win Minnesota third and undefeated New Orleans fourth.

The focal point of the Packers' success is quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose third-down marksmanship is bordering on historic. He's thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 69.7 percent of his passes, and his league-leading third-down passer rating of 132.0 is the best since Kurt Warner's 137.3 for the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams in 1999.

"I don't think it's all me," Rodgers said after the TV cameras left his locker on Wednesday. "We've had a good scheme. I've done a good job unloading the ball at times (to) the playmakers, letting them run. We've got two of the best guys in the league I think in yards after the catch in Donald and Greg, and those guys have made some big plays for us on third downs."

It's noteworthy that Rodgers mentioned "scheme" first. While Joe Philbin is offensive coordinator and Mike McCarthy calls the plays, the third-down plan of attack is crafted by receivers coach Jimmy Robinson. In a model that's hardly universal around the league, McCarthy delegates specific phases of the game to his assistants. Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements is in charge of the red-zone plan and tight ends coach Ben McAdoo handles short yardage and goal line. Robinson, who broke into the NFL as a receivers coach for Atlanta in 1990, says he's never been entrusted with such a voice in the game plan.

It starts in the offseason, when those coaches study the top-five teams in each segment of the game in searching for new ideas. It carries over every week during the game-planning phase.

"They take that area and they research it and study it as it's their own," McCarthy said. "We get in there Tuesday, we do normal down-and-distance. We always start with the run game, and then from that we meet as a staff on third down. Jimmy kind of presents the outline, there's a certain outline we use every week. We watch the tape. He has ideas. He has a preliminary game plan that he feels will be a good package, and we kick things around and then ultimately Joe and I make the final decisions and we build our plan."

Robinson outlined his duties in an interview with Packer Report and one other reporter on Thursday. In analyzing an opponent, he's looking for substitution patterns and tendencies such as blitzing and coverages.

"We break it down and really study it in depth," Robinson said. "Typically, (the last) four or five games plus any time you might have played them in the past. And then I'll typically go back and research even beyond that, maybe as much as what they might have done the whole season just to make sure there's not something that's going to sneak in there that you're not prepared for or you haven't seen. Even though you might not specifically say, ‘OK, we've got to be ready for that,' you just want to be aware of it."

Aaron Rodgers
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The focal point, however, is the defense's bread-and-butter packages — Robinson worries about information overload for the players — and trying to match those up with what the offense does best. The coaches don't design new plays to take advantage of a perceived weakness, preferring instead to stick with plays the team has drilled over and over again over the preceding few months.

"I think you always try to play to your own strengths, try to do what we do well," he said. "Maybe that's kind of a ‘no-duh' statement, but we want to play to our strength protection-wise, timing-wise, route-wise, and knowing and feeling what you think is the most likely thing you're going to see. Sometimes, you have to have things that work against more than one coverage. Something that's, ‘Hey, this is a pretty good all-around play against anything.'"

Robinson's analysis breaks down third down by distance. While he wouldn't go into detail, he provides a number of suggestions for segments such as third-and-2-to-3, third-and-4-to-6, and so on. He also has ideas in mind in case a defense breaks from the norm. For instance, Baltimore only rarely uses a spy on the quarterback, but the Ravens started doing just that after Rodgers took advantage of a huge void in the middle of the defense for a 23-yard run late in the first half on Monday. so, the Packers had to deviate from their third-down plan to counter Baltimore's changes.

With his ideas in hand, Robinson meets on Tuesday with McCarthy, Philbin and McAdoo, who with his duties as tight ends coach and the short-yardage game is in charge of drawing the plays in that week's game plan. At the meeting, Robinson details his suggestions and runs the film to demonstrate his thinking.

McCarthy and Philbin choose from Robinson's suggestions. From there, the players run the plays at practice on Wednesday through Friday.

"We go in every week on Saturday and talk about the different situations on third down," Rodgers said. "Talk about what my favorite plays are in those situations, so I'm able to anticipate the call at times, which gives you good confidence in the scheme and the plan and what you can expect. The way we scout other teams, we usually have a pretty good idea of what they're going to try to do. It's just a matter of executing."

The Packers have been executing at a high level during their four-game winning streak. Against the Ravens on Monday, they hit on 6-of-13 third downs. At Detroit, they were 9-for-16. Against San Francisco, they were 10-of-18. Against Dallas, they were 7-of-15. That makes them a combined 32-of-62, good for 51.6 percent. That's better than Indianapolis' league-leading clip of 51.0.

Robinson wasn't gloating but admits "taking great pride" with that aspect of the game. Last year, the offense converted 44 percent of third downs, up from 43 percent in 2007 and 39 percent in 2006, the first year for this coaching staff.

"It's fun. I really enjoy it," he said. "It gives you your piece of the action, so to speak, your bailiwick, that you kind of sink your teeth into and it's a challenge. It's a challenge to get good at it as a team, as an offense, because that's what keeps the chains moving and is directly responsible for getting down the field and scoring points by converting."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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