Moving The Chains Can Control Dome Crowd

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QB Aaron Rodgers tries to escape the Vikings' pass rush in last year's game at the Metrodome. Rodgers was sacked four times in the game.

Nothing gets the opposing crowd more fired up than seeing the enemy in third-and-long. The fans rise to their feet and scream their lungs out in support of the defense, with the volume reaching debilitating levels, especially in places like next Monday's venue, Minnesota's Metrodome.

It's a factor heading into the NFC North showdown with the Vikings that the Packers can best counteract with better first-down production and more favorable down-and-distance situations. It sounds easy.

But the problem is production on first downs has been the bug-a-boo of the Green Bay offense through the season's first three games. The struggles continued in the Week 3 victory at St. Louis, but 5,000 empty seats and a healthy contingent of Green Bay fans in the Rams' dome mitigated the potential for a truly hostile environment, which they're sure to encounter next Monday in Minneapolis.

"A lot of it is a lack of consistency," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said of the first-down production. "We've had some really explosive, good plays on first down, but we've been a little bit of feast or famine. (In St. Louis) we hit a 53-yard play, a 46-yard play on first down, but then we're getting one (yard), minus-1, nothing, two, one. I think we had 10 snaps where it was second-and-8 or greater in the ballgame, and that's too many. It's hard to function as smoothly as you'd like."

That's been the story of the Packers' offense thus far, a unit that has ranked in the Top 10 in the NFL three years running but is out of the gates just 22nd in the league.

It's hard not to point to first down as the primary culprit. According to STATS, Inc., the Packers' average yards-to-go on second down is 9.03, second-to-last in the NFL (Kansas City, 9.52). The Packers have faced second-and-eight-plus 69 percent of the time (42-of-61 second downs), the highest rate in the league.

"First down has not been a positive so far this year," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think it was evident really yesterday and our first two games. The second-and-longs that we're playing in is definitely not in our favor of playing downhill. So that will be an emphasis as we get going."

The impact of all the second-and-longs, caused by a combination of bad runs, incomplete passes, sacks or penalties, can be seen in third-down conversions.

The Packers are converting just 33 percent on third down (12-of-36), tied for 23rd in the league. More telling, of those 36 third downs, the yards-to-go were eight or more 23 times, and the Packers have converted those only twice (9 percent).

By contrast, the 13 times the Packers have been in third-and-7 or less, they've converted 10 times (77 percent).

So imagine the potential production should the Packers be in more "third-and-manageables," as quarterback Aaron Rodgers refers to them, and the impact in turn that could have Monday night on the Metrodome crowd.

"Heck yeah, absolutely," Philbin said. "The more effective you are offensively, and it doesn't have to be 45-yard plays, but if you can just chip away and move the chains, those fans get tired too. They lose their interest.

"It's kind of a pendulum, and you have to get the pendulum to swing in your favor. You do that best by playing sound, playing consistently, not allowing them to make big plays on defense, just doing your basic stuff but doing it better than your opposition."

The Packers didn't do that last year at the Metrodome, which adds to the sense of urgency for this upcoming return trip.

The 28-27 loss to the Vikings in Minneapolis last November is mostly remembered for Mason Crosby's missed 52-yard field goal in the final minute. But the Green Bay offense played flat-out poorly that day, and as a consequence the crowd noise was a factor.

The Packers gained only 184 total yards that day, three more than their season-low, and down-and-distance situations were a problem all day, mainly because of eight offensive penalties and four sacks.

Nine times in that game the Packers had 10 or more yards to go on second down, and nine times they needed seven or more yards on third down. The result was a season-worst 1-for-11 (9 percent) conversion rate on third downs.

"I remember we had some protection problems, had some penalties, and those types of things are as frustrating as anything," Philbin said. "We had a couple of shots at big plays that we didn't execute very well."

{sportsad300}Most embarrassingly, the Packers gave up two safeties to the Vikings. Not surprisingly, they came on long-yardage plays of second-and-20 and second-and-10. The Packers had a chance to win it on Crosby's kick at the end only because the defense had three interceptions, returning one for a score, and Will Blackmon returned a punt for a touchdown.

But for the offense, it was a dismal day.

"I thought their defense played the best they had played in our six contests over there last year," said McCarthy of his only loss in his first three years against the Vikings. "I thought they were significantly quicker on the turf last year than prior years. But you've just got to go over there, you've got to take care of the football, you can't let the crowd and the noise factor into it. It's a tough place to play."

It won't be any easier this year, with the Vikings already the No. 1-ranked defense on third downs, allowing only 8-of-36 conversions (22 percent). On third-and-6 or more, Minnesota's opponents have converted just 3-of-23 times (13 percent).

And only one of the Vikings' three games thus far has been at home. To avoid the offensive struggles from a year ago in the Metrodome, it makes first-down production and the overall down-and-distance situations all the more critical.

"They played well on defense and they certainly made it very difficult on us to move the ball with any kind of rhythm or balance," Philbin said of last year's meeting. "We obviously have to play a lot better than we did the last time we were up there."

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