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Third-down woes still plague Packers offense despite a healthy QB and new system

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Mike McCarthy shouldered considerable blame last season for an inconsistent offense, and rightfully so. But with Aaron Rodgers now healthy and a new HC in charge of the offense, Green Bay’s third-down struggles popped up again against the Bears.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
The Bears sacked Aaron Rodgers four times on third down, furthering a troubling trend from 2018.
USA TODAY Sports

Marquez Valdes-Scantling never had a chance. On 3rd-and-2 with 4:23 left in the game, with the Green Bay Packers trailing the Seattle Seahawks 27-24, Mike McCarthy dialed up a pick play using Davante Adams as a decoy, and the rookie from South Florida sprung open to the sideline for a would-be first down. The throw from Aaron Rodgers barely made it to MVS’ feet, Green Bay punted, and another game slipped away from the Packers.

Situational football doomed McCarthy’s tenure with the Packers, but we shouldn’t let the rest of the team off the hook. In particular, Rodgers missed open receivers, held the ball too long, and generally looked merely mortal in 2018 after a decade of playing the superhero. Green Bay couldn’t score consistently in the red zone, or effectively convert third downs, which is why their yardage totals from last year don’t match up with their scoring tally.

To be blunt, they couldn’t get it done when it counted.

With a healthy quarterback—plenty of Rodgers’ struggles last season could be attributed to playing with a fractured tibial plateau—and a new offensive scheme, Green Bay looked invigorated in the offseason. A cultural and schematic reset would do this team good.

Until it didn’t.

Here’s how the Packers fared on third downs against the Bears in Week 1:

  • 3rd-and-10 — Sack
  • 3rd-and-10 — Sack
  • 3rd-and-5 — Incomplete (off-target throw to a covered receiver)
  • 3rd-and-5 — 11-yard completion to Davante Adams on second-reaction play
  • 3rd-and-6 — Sack
  • 3rd-and-7 — Screen pass for 10 yards
  • 3rd-and-4 — Incomplete (Rodgers thought he had a free play w/ offsides)
  • 3rd-and-15 — Sack
  • 3rd-and-15 — Receiver screen for loss of 5
  • 3rd-and-17 — Incomplete (No one open)
  • 3rd-and-12 — Rodgers scrambles for 10 yards
  • 3rd-and-4 — Illegal Contact Penalty on Chicago
  • 3rd-and-5 — Aaron Jones run for 2 yards

The penalty doesn’t go down as a true conversion, making the Packers just 2 for 12 on third down with a measly one play that worked as called to pick up a new set of downs.

Half of their third downs were 10 or more yards and four of the 12 resulted in sacks. Intuitively, the answer would be to simply stop getting into third-and-long. Chicago will eat offenses alive in those situations more often than not, on top of the fact the NFL average for converting third-and-10 is just 20% even before factoring in the opponent.

Get better on early downs and third downs become easier, right? Yes and no in this case.

Last year, Green Bay didn’t struggle on early downs to this degree, finishing 8th in success rate on first down. That efficiency plunged as the drive wore on, with the Packers 15th in success rate on second down and 19th on third down despite being so productive by yardage rates. Still, 15th and 19th are right around league average numbers, far from what we saw against Chicago.

In his post-game press conference, Matt LaFleur referenced the need to play catch up on the down and distance, which got them out of their game script. That’s coach speak for “we couldn’t get the run game going, particularly on early downs, and that killed us.” Down and distance often handcuffs playcallers. When a team only has one third down of less than five yards, balance becomes impossible.

To wit, Green Bay ran just once on third down against the Bears and it was on the last drive of the game to preserve the clock. Play-action on third down can be a killer, but if the team never makes it to third-and-manageable, it becomes harder to execute. Teams rarely go heavy personnel on third-and-long without going to play-action, making them easier to defend. A run fake on third-and-15 isn’t fooling anyone.

One possible answer would be to go to play-action more on first and second downs. To start, LaFleur needs to call it more overall, as laid out yesterday. We expected it to be a core tenet of the offense and sticking to it, even when the run game isn’t working, can be effective. We’ve seen teams like the Rams and Chiefs thrive specifically because they don’t worry about down and distance. Sean McVay isn’t handcuffed by the line to gain. Andy Reid wants chunk plays at all times.

Under McCarthy and Joe Philbin, the Packers finished 23nd last year in third-down conversion rate, picking up first downs just 36.76% of the time. But they were also in the top half of the league in third down attempts. Teams at the bottom? The Chiefs, Saints and Chargers attempted the fewest third downs in the NFL in 2018. The Rams were in the top-10. Picking up yards on early downs eases the burden on third down, that’s just simple math. Even simpler: avoid third downs by getting first downs earlier.

In fact, the only two third downs teams are more likely than not to convert are 3rd-and-1 and 3rd-and-2. Anything more than that and the team’s chances of converting are under water. For the Packers, their conversion rate from ‘18 would be in line with the probability of converting 3rd-and-7.

The Packers can’t only rely on getting more yards earlier in the series, however. The third-down numbers in Green Bay tell a startling story. Aaron Rodgers and Co. were the second-best team in the league in terms of generating yards on third down plays last season, according to Sharp Football Stats. Only the Chiefs averaged more yards on third down (7) than the Packers (6.4). However, the Packers were 5.6 yards short of the first down on an average third down, 5th-most in the league.

This seeming opposition embodies the Packers offense from 2018; an inefficient, high-variance group led by a big-play-hunting quarterback. Sharp Football puts the Packers as the top team in football last year generating yardage above what was required on third down. In other words, they were the type of team to pick up 25 on third-and-3 while other teams get 5 or 6 yards. On the other hand, they were below average in simply picking up first downs.

In fact, they were essentially as successful relative to league average in converting third-and-7+ as they were converting any other third down. That, at least, makes some sense. If Rodgers is consistently airing it out on third down, he’s lowering the chances a ball is completed the further he’s pushing it down the field. Hitting on those throws provides big plays, but the consistency drops.

Unfortunately the Packers, this means even a 3rd-and-2, like the Seahawks scenario, may go for a big play, but it could fall incomplete. This is where Rodgers shoulders his own burden. He must be more consistent getting the ball out of his hands and into those of his playmakers. Green Bay led the league in third-down sacks the last two seasons, and at least part of the blame for that has to fall at the feet of the quarterback. On Thursday night that was partially on Rodgers but also on the struggles of his offensive line against a ferocious Bears front. There was a missed hot read here and there, but overall, Chicago blanketed the Green Bay receivers and didn’t give them anything easy.

Rodgers has to take what the defense gives him and it’s up to LaFleur to ensure what’s given is good enough. This partnership can work, but it will require head coach and quarterback to improve from what we saw in Week 1. In that way, we’re still at square one, waiting for the improvement the new season was supposed to bring. They’ll get their chance this Sunday.