Throughout the regular season, the Green Bay Packers were not a very good third-down team, particularly on offense. Instead, the group thrived on red-zone successes, ensuring that they got seven points instead of three when getting close to the goal line.
Aaron Rodgers and company converted just 36 percent of their third-down opportunities in the 2019 regular season, ranking them 23rd in the NFL. That was almost a carbon copy of the team’s 2018 numbers on the money down, as the Packers converted 36.8% of chances last season, also good for a 23rd-place ranking.
Interestingly, the Packers converted exactly 50 percent of fourth downs both seasons as well.
However, one of the critical factors in Green Bay’s Divisional Playoff victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday was a change of fortune on third down. The Packers moved the chains on nine of their 14 opportunities against Seattle, doing so largely thanks to Aaron Rodgers’ arm.
One of the key factors for the Packers’ shocking turnaround on that down, however, was the fact that they stayed out of terrible distance situations. In this game, the Packers faced a third-and-very long (10 or more yards to go) just twice. Take a look at the Packers’ numbers on third downs from throughout the regular season to see how essential that was:
- 3rd and short (1 or 2 yards): 14-for-24 (58.3%)
- 3rd and medium-short (3-5 yards): 23-for-50 (46.0%)
- 3rd and medium-long (6-9 yards): 27-for-68 (39.7%)
- 3rd and long (10+ yards): 8-for-61 (13.1%)
To be sure, the Packers still outperformed their season numbers in most of these ranges during the small sample size of this one game. However, they gave themselves a much better chance to sustain drives by avoiding situations where they would have a miserable chance to convert.
For example, of the two third-and-longs, the Packers did convert one. On third-and-10, the team got a critical 11-yard pass from Rodgers to Geronimo Allison over the middle that moved the chains to help eat up some clock early in the fourth quarter. The other long opportunity was a 3rd-and-12 from their own 13-yard line and even that play almost went for a first down, with Jamaal Williams being just unable to keep his balance and stay upright for the needed yardage on a swing pass out of the backfield.
On third and short, the Packers converted each of their three opportunities. Two were one-yard touchdown runs by Aaron Jones, while the third was a timely quarterback sneak from Rodgers. The Packers also missed on one third-and-four, an incomplete pass to Davante Adams.
The remainder of the third-down plays — seven of them — had between six and nine yards to gain. And while the team hit on around 40% in the season, a better mark than their overall number, they exceeded that with a 5-for-7 performance (71%). Here are the results of those plays, with the first two coming on the first drive of the game and the final two on the last series:
- 3rd-and-8, SEA 36: Rodgers to Graham for 13 yards
- 3rd-and-7, SEA 20: Rodgers to Adams for 20 yards, TOUCHDOWN
- 3rd-and-9, GB 12: Rodgers throws incomplete
- 3rd-and-6, GB 29: Rodgers to Graham for 27 yards
- 3rd-and-9, SEA 40: Rodgers sacked for loss of 8 yards
- 3rd-and-8, GB 22: Rodgers to Adams for 32 yards
- 3rd-and-9, SEA 45: Rodgers to Graham for 9 yards
So yes, the Packers did have an unusually good conversion rate on third downs against Seattle. But they gave themselves at least a far better chance at moving the chains by avoiding truly terrible down-and-distance situations.
If the Packers can stay out of third-and-longs once again when they play the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship and keep the distance to gain less than ten yards, they should be in great shape, even if they regress to more normal conversion rates.
Interestingly, the Seattle Seahawks did a similarly good job of avoiding third-and-longs, but their offense was much less effective when facing shorter yardages. Seattle had just one third down with 10 yards or more to gain, which went on an incompletion to D.K. Metcalf that Jaire Alexander broke up. Seattle’s third downs were as follows:
- 3rd-and-10, SEA 41: Wilson throws incomplete
- 3rd-and-1, SEA 42: Lynch run for no gain
- 3rd-and-6, GB 26: Wilson throws incomplete
- 3rd-and-8, GB 32: Wilson throws incomplete
- 3rd-and-9, SEA 39: Wilson runs for 13 yards
- 3rd-and-6, SEA 35: Wilson runs for 22 yards
- 3rd-and-4, GB 8: Wilson throws to Hollister for 3 yards
- 3rd-and-1, GB 16: Wilson runs for 9 yards
- 3rd-and-5, SEA 42: Wilson sacked by Preston Smith for loss of 6 yards
On third and medium-long, Seattle went 2-for-4 compared to the Packers’ 5-for-7 mark, but they were just 1-for-4 with five or fewer yards to gain. The difference in performance on third downs, perhaps more than any other statistic, explains why the Packers advanced to the NFC Championship.