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Packers’ 3rd-down defense is a mirage due to sacks, penalties, and early-down failures

Unless the Packers defense gets a sack or a penalty on the offense, they are having a really tough time getting off the field:

Much has been made over the Green Bay Packers’ defensive struggles this year under Joe Barry through five games. Ben Solak, writing for The Ringer, recently wrote an outstanding breakdown of all of those issues. Among his most interesting findings was just how poorly the Packers defense has played on first and second down. These early-down struggles have the counterintuitive impact of making the Packers actually look pretty good on third down — they rank 4th in 3rd down conversion rate allowed — for two primary reasons.

The first is that they actually play smarter defense on 3rd down. The second and more important reason is that because they are so bad on first and second down, they only force third downs when something catastrophic for the offense has occurred on those early downs. Here’s Solak on that topic:

With the league’s second-worst success rate on second down, the Packers are so frequently giving up first downs before even getting to third down that they’ve faced only 53 total third downs this year—that’s the second-lowest number in the league. And when they do face third downs, it’s often with a far way to go—third-down offenses facing the Packers need an average of 7.55 yards to gain, the fifth-highest number among NFL defenses—because the only third downs the Packers are forcing come with negative plays for the offense on early downs. They don’t get teams into third-and-3 or third-and-4—they either get them into third-and-8, or they don’t get them into third down at all.

But what does that mean, exactly? I took a look at every opposing drive that resulted in a punt to identify why the opposing team wound up punting, and I think, once you see the results, all will be clear. I should point out, in fairness to the Packers, that they actually have forced a fair number of punts. On offense, the Buffalo Bills have punted just 9 times this year, while the Washington Commanders have punted 29 times. (The Packers have punted 21 times, for what it’s worth.) Packers opponents have punted 24 times, which does put them in the upper third of the league. The Vikings punted 5 times in Week 1, followed by 4 punts from the Bears, 6 from the Bucs, 7 from the Pats, and a mere 2 from the Giants.

To assess why these punts happened, I bucketed these 24 drives into three categories: Penalties, Sacks, and Clean. The Packers deserve credit for generating sacks, of course, and the goal is not to disparage sacks at all, however I wanted to identify those drives where they simply stopped a team from gaining 10 yards in 3 plays under “normal” circumstances, through stout run defense, and forcing check downs or incompletions. Wile Rashan Gary is outstanding at sacking quarterbacks, opposing quarterbacks have a large role in whether or not they take sacks, and when not facing Justin Fields and Bailey Zappe, sacks may be harder to come by.

To kick things off, there were opposing 7 drives impaired by a penalty:

  1. The Vikings suffered a delay of game on 2nd and 11 with 2:56 remaining in the 3rd quarter.
  2. The Bears were called for a false start on 1st and 10 with 11:50 remaining in the 2nd, and that drive ended with Justin Fields’ illegal forward pass on 3rd and 10.
  3. The Bucs were hit with a holding penalty on 1st and 10 with 2:56 left in the 1st quarter.
  4. On a later drive the Bucs committed two false start penalties (Scotty Miller with 8:11 left in the 2nd, Brandon Walton with 7:18 remaining.) Brady would also take a sack on 3rd and 12.
  5. The Bucs would be called for holding on 3rd and 3 with 1:08 left in the 3rd as Brandon Walton, once again, wiped out a first down scramble by Brady.
  6. The Pats committed a false start with 2:25 remaining in the first quarter on 1st and 10.
  7. The Giants couldn’t get the snap off in time on 3rd and 8 with 6:26 left in the 1st quarter.

All seven of these drives were severely impacted by those penalties, and while not every one would have resulted in a first down, at last a few would have.

Sacks derailed another 6 drives, excluding item 4 on the list above which also included a penalty:

  1. Kirk Cousins was crushed by Rashan Gary on 3rd and 7 with 6:18 remaining in the 1st.
  2. Preston Smith got Justin Fields for 5 yards on 1st and 10 at the start of the second quarter. This drive also included a well-defended minus-4 yard pass to Darnell Mooney.
  3. At the start of the 3rd quarter, Rashan Gary would get to Fields for a loss of 7 yards, turning a 2nd and 3 into a 3rd and 10.
  4. In the middle of the 4th quarter, Kenny Clark would sack Tom Brady for 8 yards. It’s worth noting that on this drive, there was an aborted snap on 1st down that cost the Bucs 12 yards, and after Kenny’s sack, the Bucs faced 3rd and 30. If not for the botched snap, that sack might not have happened.
  5. On 3rd and 10 with 5:50 remaining in the first quarter, Rashan Gary sacked Brian Hoyer.
  6. Jarran Reed got to Bailey Zappe for 9 yards with 5:25 remaining in the 4th quarter for a huge stop on 2nd and 6.

This leaves us with 11 drives where the Packers forced a punt without the aid of a penalty or sack. So, what do these “clean” drives look like?

One, from the Vikings, was a garbage-time drive featuring 7 consecutive runs as Minnesota just tried to get the game over with. Another was a similar, conservative drive from the Patriots, who were pinned at their own 2-yard line with under 2 minutes remaining and were just trying to get the game to overtime. They ran it to Rhamondre Stevenson three times, gaining 9 yards, content to punt to Amari Rodgers with 4 seconds left.

A few benefited from a stuff in the run game, essentially serving as a sack. In the late 2nd quarter of the Bears game, Rashan Gary stoned David Montgomery for a 5-yard loss, and in the early 2nd quarter of the Pats game, Quay Walker got to Stevenson in the backfield for a 2-yard loss.

The Patriots were also extremely conservative and punted twice where other teams may have gone for it. In the 2nd quarter, on 3rd and 8, the Pats picked up 7 on a throw from Zappe to Hunter Henry, moving to the Green Bay 46, but rather than go on 4th and 1, they brought out Jake Bailey to punt. Later, in overtime, after forcing a Packer punt, which Marcus Jones returned for 20 yards, Zappe missed Hunter Henry, bringing up 4th and 5 from the Green Bay 46. Needing just 5 yards for a first down and 11 yards to get into field goal range, they instead elected to punt, pinning the Packers at the 10.

That leaves us with 5 plays, and on these 5, the Packers played pretty solid defense. They had two clean stops forcing 3-and-outs against the Vikings and 2 more nice stops against Tampa: a nice 3-and-out against where Brady missed on 3 straight passes, and another where they stuffed Fournette on first down and kept Cole Beasley to minimal gains on 2nd and 3rd. Finally, they started the Giants game with a bang, bottling up Saquon Barkley twice on 1st and 2nd down for a combined 6 yards and holding up on 3rd and 4, forcing an incompletion from Daniel Jones. These 5 drives featured genuinely impressive play-to-play defense.

Why is all of this important?

First and foremost, it highlights just how important Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary, and Preston Smith are. Their sacks and splash plays are huge factors in forcing stops, and when they don’t get home, the Packers have a terrible time getting off the field. Second, if not for penalties, the defense would look a lot worse.

Sacks and Offensive Penalties

Opponent Sacks Yards Offensive Penalties Yards Points Allowed
Opponent Sacks Yards Offensive Penalties Yards Points Allowed
MIN 1 8 3 20 23
CHI 3 22 3 15 10
TB 3 20 4 30 12
NE 4 32 2 10 17
NYG 1 4 4 25 27

Penalties were important to almost a third of opposing punts, and against more explosive offenses or more disciplined teams (as many of these penalties were false starts and delays), the defense may have trouble.

Finally, the Giants’ game was especially bad. After their first drive, which was a nice 3-and-out, the Packers didn’t stop the Giants at all without the aid of a penalty. While they managed to sack Jones 3 times, two of those (including a fumble) were wiped out by Packer penalties. The Packers failed to get to Jones and, without the aid of sacks, the Giants basically scored at will. The Giants actually did commit quite a few offensive penalties, but they generally happened in field goal range and still resulted in points.

The Packers’ best defensive performance of the year was against the undermanned Bucs, where they got to Brady 3 times and benefitted from 4 offensive penalties that undermined several drives.

The Packers really need to make some changes on defense. Right now the biggest thing they have going for them are a few truly elite pass rushers and some litigious officials.

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