Gameday Notebook: Dynamic on Third Down

Packer Report publisher Bill Huber empties his tape recorder and notebook in time for today's game. Third-down success explains the difference between these two teams. Plus in this must-read feature, a look at the red-zone woes and the challenge Pittsburgh's offense presents.

The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers are practically statistical equals entering today's game.

The Packers rank seventh in total offense, including 13th rushing and ninth passing. The Steelers rank ninth in total offense, including 16th rushing and 12th passing.

The Packers rank second in total defense, including second rushing and third passing. The Steelers rank fourth in total defense, including first rushing and 13th passing.

So why are the Packers 9-6 and on the cusp of the playoffs and the Steelers 6-7 and staring elimination in the face?

Sure, turnovers are a big issue, with the Packers a league-best plus-18 compared to the Steelers' 24th-ranked minus-5. But there's another key figure that points in Green Bay's direction: third downs.

The Packers rank fifth in third-down offense by moving the chains 45.2 percent of the time and are sixth in third-down defense in giving up first downs only 34.7 percent of the time. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, ranks 17th in third-down offense (38.1 percent) and 24th in third-down defense (39.8 percent).

The success on offense isn't much of a surprise. The Packers finished fifth in 2008 and eighth in 2007. As long as it's not third-and-long, Aaron Rodgers has been lights-out. He's converted a league-high 65.2 percent of third-down plays of 7 yards or less, according to data from STATS. Rodgers plays no favorites on third down. Only Greg Jennings ranks in the top 20 in the NFL in turning third downs into first downs (ninth with 17).

The turnaround on defense mirrors the overall success under first-year coordinator Dom Capers. The Packers finished just 14th in third-down defense last season after ranking third during the run to the NFC title game in 2007.

"I think it's a mixture of a couple of things as we get better on third down," linebacker Nick Barnett said. "We have some good DBs, No. 1, who can cover and are good communicators. And we also have some front guys who are trying to rush their butts off."

Barnett went on to repeat one of Capers' favorite mantras. It's hard to get off the field on third down if you can't stop the run.

"To be honest with you, it's winning first and second down and creating third-and-long," Barnett said. "If you can win first down and second down and create third-and-long and we just play to our responsibilities, we have enough talent to be able to get off the field."

Playoff update

The Packers can clinch a playoff berth if they beat the Steelers and the Giants lose at Washington on Monday night. The Packers could have clinched with a win and a Dallas loss at New Orleans, but the Cowboys pulled off a big upset on Saturday night.

Green Bay is 9-4, Dallas 9-5 and the Giants 7-6 in the race for two wild-card spots. Eighth-place Atlanta (6-7) was eliminated on Saturday.

Ten wins appears to be the magic number. "I think to start, 10-4 would be good," Rodgers said.

In the AFC, the Steelers are in 10th place at 6-7 — the byproduct of a five-game losing streak. Denver leads the wild-card race at 8-5. Three teams are 7-6, led by No. 6 seed Baltimore, with Miami and the Jets in pursuit. The Jaguars are 7-7, and their inability to hold off the Colts on Thursday provided a lift for Pittsburgh.

"You know, the emphasis for me and for our guys is not to ‘hang in there,'" Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. "Adversity is as much a part of this game as blocking and tackling. It's important that we keep it in perspective, and the perspective is that we haven't played winning football. And the only way to go about correcting that is to come in here and show a certain amount of resolve, stay together, and continue to work and press to play better. And that's kind of what we're doing."

Even though the defending champs are a long shot to get back to the playoffs, the Packers are expecting their best shot.

"I think you have to look at them as a team that plays with a lot of pride," Rodgers said. "They have veteran leaders. They have won Super Bowls, more than one. It's going to be a tough challenge for us. We know they're coming off a number of losses in a row and their backs are against the wall. So we realize the kind of effort they're going to bring and realizing they're going to be playing for their playoff lives and we're going to be playing to hopefully secure our birth."

Tomlin hopes the losing streak fuels the Steelers' fire. Then again, they laid an egg in a must-win game at woeful Cleveland last week.

"I know that there's a certain level of anger and frustration and disappointment with where we are," Tomlin said. "The big thing is that we use that as fuel and we mold that into a winning caliber performance, and that's what we're working toward doing."

Red-faced in the red zone

Aaron Rodgers has a 106.0 passer rating in the red zone.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
On offense and defense, the Packers boast statistical superiority in practically every category. What's gone haywire, of course, is their play in the red zone.

The Packers have scored touchdowns on exactly half of their trips inside the 20-yard line, which ranks a middle-of-the-pack 16th in the league. Officially last week against Chicago, the Packers scored on only 1-of-4 red-zone possessions, although one of those came in the final seconds, when the offense took over on downs and Rodgers took a knee to run out the clock. One of the failed possession was hurt by a false start by Mark Tauscher, another when Rodgers missed an open Donald Driver on third-and-goal.

"There's some common threads," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "Our execution, you don't want to pin it all on that. Some of it, our opponents have done a good job. Some of it's, last week, again, I think when you have an offensive penalty and you hurt yourself or you take a sack on a third down, when you get a pass tipped on second down, those are kind of obvious things that you look at and you say, ‘Well, that's not real good.' So, we've got to do a better job, there's no question about it. I mean, one time, if Greg catches the ball on that touchdown and doesn't get knocked out, we're not even in the red zone and then at the end of the game. We've just got to do a better job and make some more plays down there."

The challenge in the red zone is there is less space for the defense to defend. In the case of the Packers, who had trouble protecting the quarterback for much of the season, teams were able to drop seven into coverage and pressure Rodgers with just four. That makes for some tight windows without a lot of time for the receivers to get open.

Further demonstrating the problems is the Packers' 24th ranking in goal-to-go possessions. The Packers have scored touchdowns 63 percent of the time in goal-to-go, a byproduct, again, of the tight windows as well as an offensive line that lacks the power to consistently gain the tough yards on the ground.

"You have less area to defend so it makes it harder," said quarterbacks coach Tom Clements, who helps formulate the red-zone plan. "When we've been successful, we've executed, that's the biggest thing. Sometimes we've had a lost-yardage play, whatever that is — it could be a penalty, it could be a sack, it could be a run where we lose yardage — anytime you lose yardage in that area, it's hard to make up.  That's what we preach. We preach that we don't want any lost-yardage plays. The execution is at a premium."

That's especially true this week. The Steelers boast the NFL's fifth-best red zone defense, driven by the league's best run defense and the second-ranked pass rush (39 sacks).

"I don't think we're that far off," Philbin said. "We devote a lot of time to it on the practice field, we devote a lot of time as a staff developing it as best we can. … I think we've got a good plan this week. The Steelers are very good in the red zone. We watched one (red) zone and heck, nobody's even throwing the ball against them and then teams aren't having a lot of success running, either, against them. They're a challenge. This is not going to be an easy week to up our percentages, but I think we're certainly capable."

The Steelers' offense

Mike Wallace (top) and Hines Ward.
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Flipping the coin, the Packers' defense interestingly ranks 31st in red zone defense (touchdowns allowed 63.9 percent of the time) but seventh in goal-to-go (59.1 percent). Pittsburgh's offense ranks fifth in both areas.

The Steelers are driven by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is one of the game's best freelancers at the position. Because he's so big and strong, with above-average mobility and a strong arm, he's probably at his most dangerous when a play breaks down.

Just like Rodgers, Roethlisberger doesn't play favorites in the passing game. Hines Ward (76 catches, 943 yards, six touchdowns) and Santonio Holmes (70 catches, 1,080 yards, three touchdowns) have similar stats, tight end Heath Miller (61 catches, 580 yards, five touchdowns) moves the chains and rookie Mike Wallace (32 catches, 530 yards, three touchdowns) stretches the field.

"The thing that I see is an explosive team that can score on any place on the field. It starts with their quarterback," Capers said. "He's a guy that creates plays. He's one of the best in the business of having a feel for where the rush is coming from. He's great at stepping up in the pocket and sliding, and what he does is he buys so much time for the routes to uncover. They do a nice job of adjusting the routes based off of him buying time and scrambling. He's very strong, he's very hard to get on the ground. He has a feel for it to where he'll duck under tackles. You better tackle him between the knees and the chest or you're not going to get him down."

Roethlisberger spoke in equally glowing terms when asked about the diverse schemes employed by the Packers' defense.

"Well, they could line up in the same defense every time and probably still kick your butt," he said during a conference call on Wednesday. "I mean, their personnel, the people they have on that side of the ball are just great players. Now you add in the different things they do, the blitzing, the change of fronts, that's why they're either No. 1 or No. 2 defense in the league."

Four-point stance

With Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall averaging 4.9 yards per carry, the availability of nose tackle Ryan Pickett will be crucial. He's questionable with a hamstring.

"If you don't have a big presence inside like Ryan gives us — you see people try to play 3-4 defense and if they've got a little guy inside there, they have a hard time stopping the run," Capers said. "I really believe that's been one of the real strengths of this team, especially over the last nine games. It's where everything starts for us, and he's been a big factor in there. You've got to be an unselfish guy. I think he's played his role for what we ask him to do very well."

— Is this the week the Packers' special teams provides a winning difference? The Steelers rank 31st in kickoff coverage — allowing an incredible four touchdown returns — as well as 22nd in punt coverage, 23rd in punt returns and 10th in kickoff returns. Stefan Logan averages an impressive 26.7 yards per kickoff return. Just how bad is the Steelers' kickoff coverage? The four touchdowns is tied for the league record, and there have been only 11 others allowed in 195 games across the league.

— Tomlin is impressed with Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, who's become a featured part of the offense. "I tell ya, he is an enormous wideout, is what he is. He's got a unique skill set, he can challenge you vertically. He's a tough physical matchup because his size and things are tough for safeties to deal with and the speed and athleticism and body control are tough for linebackers to deal with. He's a talented player, one that we respect and we're working hard to prepare for."

— Packers cornerback Charles Woodson is one of only eight players in league history to post eight interceptions and two sacks in one season — and he's still got three games to go. "You know, this guy's playing a high level, and of course he's played at a high level for a long time," Tomlin said. "But he's really I think having an MVP-caliber year and not only what he does outside at corner but I think what he does when they move him around in sub package football in nickel and so forth is equally impressive if not more impressive."

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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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