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Why the Packers are so much better on 3rd downs in 2020: distance and Aaron Rodgers

The answer is twofold: both more favorable distances to gain and better efficiency from the quarterback.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most stunning improvements that the Green Bay Packers’ offense has made from 2019 to 2020 is a better rate of converting third down opportunities. A year ago, the Packers hit on just 36 percent of third downs, a rate that ranked 23rd in the NFL. It was a disappointing number for a team with a new offensive-minded head coach, and it was a data point that gave some credence to the idea that the Packers’ 13-3 record was not reflective of the team’s actual quality, at least on offense.

In 2020, however, that narrative has completely flipped. Despite the team adding few weapons on offense, the Packers’ third-down conversion rate has soared to 51.1 percent, good for fourth in the NFL. One of head coach Matt LaFleur’s goals this summer was to help get the Packers into better down-and-distance situations, and this jump would suggest that this is indeed the case.

But is it? Or is the team just converting better on the opportunities that they do get? Let’s break down the numbers to find out. We separated third down distances into short (1 to 3 yards to gain), medium (four to seven yards), and long (eight or more yards to gain) categories to illustrate the team’s trend towards shorter yards-to-go this season.

Down and Distance

Here are the frequencies at which the Packers fell into each distance category on third down attempts during the 2019 season:

  • Long: 44.3%
  • Medium: 37.4%
  • Short: 18.2%

In 2020, however, we see a major shift in the breakdown of distances to gain. While the team’s third-and-medium rate is almost identical to that of 2019, they have shifted over eight percent of their attempts from long-yardage to short-yardage situations:

  • Long: 35.6% frequency
  • Medium: 37.8% frequency
  • Short: 26.7% frequency

Why is this happening?

First, let’s dig into that distribution of distances above. A better offense will be more likely to move the chains earlier in a series of downs, but it also will move the ball more efficiently on those earlier downs, setting up more favorable distances if it does get to third down. That’s exactly what we’re seeing with the Packers, as the team has been much better on first down than it was a year ago:

Look also at the difference in Aaron Rodgers’ completion percentage on first down: about nine percent. That’s almost exactly the difference in third-and-short rate between 2019 and 2020. Of course, that’s not the only factor in shifting third down opportunities from long yardage to short yardage, but it is certainly one of the factors. After all, a team is more likely to face a third-and-long if they throw incomplete on first down than if the quarterback completes a pass, even if it’s short of the sticks.

That yards per carry on first down is a tremendous help as well. 4.7 is a solid average to start from, but with the team basically averaging a 2nd-and-3 on most plays, that sets up all sorts of creative playcalls on succeeding downs.

Rodgers is the key

It should therefore come as no surprise that the Packers’ overall third down conversion rate has increased when looking at the distance distribution. When a team has fewer yards to gain, it will naturally convert that opportunity more often than at a longer distance. But what is also stunning is that the Packers’ conversion rates have increased over all distance categories from 2019 to 2020:

  • Long: 22.2% in 2019, 37.5% in 2020
  • Medium: 42.1% in 2019, 52.9% in 2020
  • Short: 56.8% in 2019, 66.7% in 2020

That’s right — the Packers are converting on 10% more third-down opportunities over each of these three distance bands this season than they did a year ago. With no significant changes in personnel, credit here must go to LaFleur, whose playcalling has improved, and Aaron Rodgers, whose accuracy has been visibly better this season.

Indeed, Rodgers’ performance on third down is critical to the team’s overall improvement on third downs. Over all distances on the down, he is averaging a ludicrous 10.9 net yards per dropback in 2020 (when also taking sacks into account). Compare that to last season: in 2019, he averaged just 5.9 net yards per dropback, an amazing difference. An improved completion rate is one of the major reasons for this increase, as Rodgers has a 68.4% completion percentage on third downs in 2020 compared to just 54.4% a year ago (according to Pro Football Reference). However, Rodgers is also averaging more yards per completion this year on third downs, up to 16.8 from 14.2, so the plays he does connect on are picking up more yardage even though the team tends to have a shorter distance to go to move the chains.

Sacks play a role as well, so give the Packers’ offensive line some credit. Rodgers took 18 sacks on 174 dropbacks in 2019 for a sack rate of just over 10%, which also contributes to the net yards per dropback difference mentioned above. In 2020, he has been sacked just once in 40 dropbacks, a rate of 2.5%.

Rodgers’ other passing efficiency ratings also show a marked improvement. In 2019, his passer rating on third down was the worst of any down at 87.5, and his adjusted yards per attempt was 7.9 — acceptable, but not great. In 2020, those numbers have improved across the board to a passer rating of 142.1 and an AY/A of 13.6.

A slight improvement is also there on the Packers’ non-scramble rushing attempts, with the team’s yards per carry jumping from 2.6 to 4.8, but an extreme small sample size caveat applies for 2020 (five total attempts).

It boils down to this: the Packers offense is better all over in 2020 than it was in Matt LaFleur’s first season. The team is indeed doing a better job of getting into favorable distances on third downs, and beyond that, the team — Rodgers in particular — is executing much better in those opportunities as well.

If the Packers can sustain this improvement for the entire 2020 season, or can at least avoid regressing much, they should remain one of the top contenders for home field advantage in the NFC.

(Editor’s note: Rodgers’ net yards/attempt numbers were slightly miscalculated initially; the values have been updated to exclude scrambles from both attempts and yards in that calculation. Scrambles are still accounted for in total dropbacks for the calculation of sack rate.)


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