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Packers’ third-down issues stem from a predictability problem

Green Bay boasts one of the best backfields in football, so why are they going empty so often on 3rd-and-short? Trusting Aaron Rodgers makes sense, but so does putting faith in an elite offense line and the “other” Aaron on this team.

Carolina Panthers v Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been a third-down killer like in year’s past this season.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

For two straight weeks, we saw the best possible version of the Green Bay Packers’ plan: spread everyone out, get running backs on linebackers, and let Aaron Rodgers pick his matchups. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams eat slow-footed ‘backers for breakfast or clear out space for receivers to get free behind. But somewhere in there Matt LaFleur and Rodgers became infatuated with the idea to the detriment of the team, a problem plaguing LaFlueur predecessor as well, but not one we would expect from a coach like LaFleur who prides himself on run/pass balance.

Against the Panthers, we saw this problem manifest itself in troubling ways for the Packers, who are 28th in the league in three-and-outs per drive in large part because they’re 19th in converting third downs. When the run game is working the way it has been for Green Bay, the way it was working at snowy Lambeau Field against Carolina, going empty on 3rd-and-short stands out.

On 3rd-and-6 or less on Sunday, the Packers went empty four times. They converted one first down, the big play to Jimmy Graham that we later found out was a built-in “special” to trick Luke Kuechly. An off-schedule throw scuttled a 3rd-and-4. A dubious OPI call turned a 3rd-and-2 conversion into 3rd-and-12, and a 3rd-and-6 went begging when Rodgers underthrew Allen Lazard down the field on another off-schedule, second-reaction play.

In short, it didn’t work.

But in those same situations, the Packers went 2-2 converting with at least one back in the backfield, one on a run and another via the air. And therein lies part of the problem. Green Bay may have Aaron Rodgers, but LaFleur also has two outstanding running backs and an elite offensive line. Play some bully ball once in a while.

On 3rd-and-3 or less, Green Bay has converted at a 67% rate when running it compared to just 47% when throwing it, yet they have let Rodgers air it out nearly three times as often (17) as they have given it to the Packers stable of capable backs (6). That’s the second-fewest ground attempts in football on 3rd-and-3 or less and a whopping 20 teams have twice as many such attempts.

They’re 26th in success rate throwing in these situations. Here are the quarterbacks on the teams who are worse: Mitch Trubisky, Joe Flacco/Brandon Allen, Gardner Minshew/Nick Foles, Mason Rudolph/Devlin Hodges/Ben Roethlisberger, Marcus Mariota/Ryan Tannehill, Case Keenum/Dwayne Haskins/Colt McCoy.

That’s a big-time yikes.

Pre-snap penalties play a factor here as well. Too often, a 2nd-and-2 turns into 2nd-and-7 because someone can’t hold his water at the line of scrimmage or a 3rd-and-manageable turns into 3rd-and-long. The Packers can’t keep shooting themselves in the foot and expecting some Rodgers magic to get them out of it. We know he still can, as evidence by the beautiful throw-and-catch to Davante Adams on 2nd-and-a-mile against the Panthers.

Using play-action provides an intuitive solution to these issues, but what we find upon further investigation is quite the opposite. The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin did a study on play-action success and found essentially no difference in effectiveness on third-and-short between play action and non-play action, but playing under center created a vast boost in efficiency in play-action. In fact, from shotgun, play-action passing was less successful on 3rd-and-3 or less than traditional drop-backs with the average yards per play at 5.2 vs. 5.0 with play-action.

But emptying the backfield cues defenses. They now know for sure what’s coming. Even if play-action isn’t theoretically more dangerous in these situations, removing the threat of the run entirely streamlines the processing for defenders, no keys or read, or reaction time to lose. Even just the threat of a back next to Rodgers, particularly with players as dangerous as Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams have been this year, changes the thought process for defenses.

An easier solution would be just hand it to 33 and 30 more often. Play under center more in those situations to make play-action more believable, especially in plus territory when an incompletion doesn’t hurt you with a fourth down waiting on deck. On the other hand, lining up in 11 personnel while spread out in shotgun presents a tasty opportunity to run the ball. Green Bay simply hasn’t taken it often enough, presumably under the idea it’s more likely Rodgers converts on third down.

That simply hasn’t been the case this season for a plethora of reasons.

LaFleur hasn’t sought balance for the sake of balance. This offense demands it given how much of the passing game relies on the run game. He can’t be afraid to stick to that philosophy in these 3rd-and-short situations. Rodgers cures all sorts of ills, but the Packers don’t have any sickness in their run game. They’re as able-bodied as any team in the league. Don’t give defenses the chance to know for sure what you’re doing unless you absolutely have to. If it’s a pass, find more ways to make use of play action, which means playing more under center, especially to run.

Give yourself every advantage to succeed, which includes occasionally stuffing the ball into the belly of two extremely productive running backs, even if it means taking the ball out of the hands of the best right arm we’ve ever seen.