Third down was just another play for Aaron Rodgers, a swaggering marvel who often appeared to bend the bounds of time and space to his own will. Third-and-15? Rodgers has an answer for that. If it’s not in the playcall, he’ll reveal a first down as if by prestidigitation. That player has disappeared for the Green Bay Packers and may never be coming back, but Rodgers still conjures some magic on third down. The lack of consistency has given way to wild swings in success and a 1-for-15 effort on third down against the 49ers creates critical urgency to get it fixed.
Matt LaFleur’s arrival in Green Bay, at least in part, aimed to solve this problem. The Packers offense struggled to sustain drives last year, ultimately leading to Mike McCarthy’s ouster during the season. The money down has been coming back “insufficient funds” once again for Rodgers and Co., with the 25th success rate in the league on third down and one of the highest three-and-out rates in the league.
Distance provides an intuitive answer. Anecdotally, the Packers seem to find themselves in 3rd-and-very-long far more than one would expect from a team with a top-10 offense, but they’re middle-of-the-pack in average third down distance at 5.5 yards to go, just 0.1 yard further than league average.
When the Packers are converting, they’re creating big plays, much like last year, even though it’s not just deep shot throws from Rodgers. They’re third in what Sharp Football Stats calls Yards Above Successful, in other words many yards beyond what they needed did they get.
In short, when it works, it works to perfection.
The problem is when it fails, it fails miserably. The Packers are third from the bottom in the league in Yards To Successful, a measure of how far short a team falls from having a successful play. Last year, that meant a leading the league in third-down sacks, once again a problem for the Packers this season.
Against the 49ers though, it wasn’t just on Rodgers and the offensive line. With the score still 7-0, the Packers had a 3rd-and-4 as well as a 3rd-and-9 dropped, the latter of which on a well set up screen to Jamaal Williams (though not Aaron Jones). Two sacks came on near immediate pressure off the edge, the first on the sack-fumble on 3rd-and-10, and later on 3rd-and-8 with the Packers already down 20-0.
San Francisco deserves credit for those pressures, as well as a beautiful pass breakup by Jimmie Ward on a 3rd-and-13 where Rodgers had Davante Adams open in a hole in the zone until Ward laid out to close down the throwing window. Ward scuttled a big play to Jimmy Graham down the right sideline on 3rd-and-8, one NBC rules official noted could have been challenged as it appeared Graham held the ball for two steps before going to the ground and losing it. And tremendous coverage across the board led to a 3rd-and-6 incompletion to Aaron Jones, who was blanketed on a play Green Bay has used to cook teams on third down in the past.
These aren’t plays indicative of a broken offense, but rather one who executed far below the level of its opponent. Catches we’ve seen these players make, blocks we assume they’ll complete, and throws we’re used to being fired in. Davante Adams gets paid top receiver money not to come up a yard short on 3rd-and-8. Rodgers got the biggest contract ever to not be late on a deep shot to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on 3rd-and-10.
It wasn’t a conceptual or philosophical failing. Rodgers didn’t hold the ball too long. Matt LaFleur didn’t get pantsed by Robert Saleh schematically. The Packers didn’t execute, a problem plaguing this team on third down all season.
On Monday, LaFleur said the team committed the most mental errors they have all season against the 49ers and harped on the schematic shortcomings. He added it was the worst game up front all season, a critical failure against a team like the 49ers, and one that dovetails with the same issues the team had against the Chargers’ pass rush.
Davante Adams has been a No. 1 long enough to be trusted, but he hasn’t tilted the field like we’ve seen in years past. LaFleur abandoned Jones for reasons that defy understanding. This offensive line decided not to make the trip to California. And none of it is new this season. Green Bay has won eight games in spite of this troubling variance, but it has to be fixed for the Packers to truly contend in the NFC.
We’ve seen them do it. This is a team with the best scripted offense in football all season, and it has been one of the best early-down teams, particularly through the air, in football. Their failures on third down don’t track with how good the offense has been in other aspects of the game. Jimmy Graham was supposed to be a relief valve when the Packers signed him and that’s been a bust, but there’s enough talent on this roster to make it work. We know because it works in the red zone where the Packers remain the best team in football turning trips into points.
Their offense works in those high-leverage moments, so why not on third down? Pre-snap and procedure penalties still dog this squad, turning manageable second and third downs into exponentially more difficult ones. When Green Bay avoids those penalties and doesn’t turn the ball over, we’ve seen what the offense is capable of being.
Reduce the clutter, get the studs back on track, and find a way to play on third down the way the team plays most of the rest of the game, and this offense should sustain drives more effectively. Fail to get it ironed out, and the Packers will head into December and January with a potential insurmountable flaw in the battle for the Lombardi.