Offense, Defense Both Cashing In On Third Down

It’s called the "money down" in the NFL, and the Packers’ rise into NFC playoff contention has a lot to do with the team’s performance on third down, on both sides of the ball. Green Bay is one of only three teams in the NFL in the top five on both offense and defense on third down. - More

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It's called the "money down" in the NFL, and the Packers' rise into NFC playoff contention has a lot to do with the team's performance on third down, on both sides of the ball.

For the season, the Packers rank fifth in the league in third-down conversions on offense (45.7 percent) and fourth on defense (33.3). That makes Green Bay one of only three teams in the NFL in the top five on both sides of third down, Minnesota and Miami being the others.

But it's not just where the Packers stand on third down for the year, it's how much they've improved over the course of the season as well.

Following the Week 4 loss in Minnesota that dropped the Packers to 2-2, the offense ranked 16th in the league on third downs and the defense ranked 28th. The collective improvement of 35 places in the rankings in those two areas is a big reason Green Bay has gone 5-2 since then to put itself among the NFC Wild Card leaders.

Here's a short breakdown of the Packers' offense and defense on third down as they stand heading into Monday night's showdown with the Ravens:

OFFENSE

The Packers' No. 5 ranking in third-down offense is mostly due to the performance of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers is far and away the league leader in pass efficiency on third down with a 135.5 rating, more than 20 points better than the next-closest, Minnesota's Brett Favre (113.7). On third down, Rodgers has the most passing yards (1,135) and touchdowns (11) of any quarterback, his 69.4 completion percentage is second to Indianapolis' Peyton Manning's 72.7, and he's the only regular starter other than New England's Tom Brady to not have thrown an interception.

"Aaron's quarterback rating is off the charts on third down," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "He has done a heck of a job."

Several factors have contributed to that success. For one, the Packers have tightened up their pass protection of late, allowing just seven sacks during the team's current three-game winning streak after allowing 37 in the first eight games.

Combine that with a more consistent running game of late, and that has put the offense in better down-and-distance situations, thereby increasing the odds to convert.

For the season, the Packers are No. 1 in the league in third-down conversions of 9 or fewer yards (60-of-98, 61.2 percent) but No. 25 when needing 10-plus (9-of-53, 17 percent). The most alarming stat there is that more than one-third of the offense's third downs this season have required 10-plus yards to convert, but that is starting to change.

Over the past two games against the 49ers and Lions, the Packers have converted 19-of-34 third downs (55.8 percent), and only six of those 34 third downs - barely more than one-sixth - have been of the 10-plus variety.

"We didn't punt the ball until the fourth quarter I think (in Detroit), and I think we had a pretty productive first half against San Francisco," Philbin said. "Yeah, when you are moving the ball better and you've got a pretty good rhythm, everything seems to be a little bit easier."

Philbin also gives a lot of credit to receivers coach Jimmy Robinson, who has a lot of responsibility for the third-down portion of the game plan. Like any offensive coach with those duties, Robinson looks for defensive tendencies and specific matchups against his receivers he thinks the team can take advantage of on third down.

More important, because third down is when defenses can be the most varied, it's when the offense has to be the most versatile. Philbin credits Robinson for focusing on third-down plays that give the offense the most freedom to react and adjust on the fly, allowing the unit the best chance to make something happen when it's needed most.

"We don't have access to their headsets, so if they are playing a two-deep zone, the next time they might be playing man-free and the next time they might be playing a four-deep dog zone and the next time they might empty it out and play a total blitz," Philbin said. "So you try to have a couple of all-purpose plays that you think you've got somewhere to go with the ball.

"I think Jimmy does a good job with that, kind of getting us in some good plays, sound overall plays that our guys know and our guys can react to the different coverages that they see."

DEFENSE

The defense's rise up the third-down rankings has been even more dramatic, and in many respects it has coincided with the team's improvement in run defense.

Since St. Louis' Steven Jackson recorded the last 100-yard rushing performance against the Packers this season back in Week 3, the run defense has climbed from 23rd in the league to fourth in yards per game. It's also fourth now in yards per carry.

Just like with third-down offense, it's the down-and-distance factor. If teams can't run the ball, they're normally in longer yardage situations on third down, which opens up defensive coordinator Dom Capers' playbook for attacking on third down.

"It's understanding how important it is that you work your tail off on first and second down to get people into third down, and then there has to be a sense of urgency to get off the field," Capers said.

"If you can go out and be stout and keep people to 3 yards or less on first down, people become more predictable in what they do on second down. If it's always second-and-5, second-and-6, it becomes a totally different game to call. Normally the games that we play well on first down, then it opens up a lot more things and we play better on third down."

{sportsad300}The other major factor has been the increased comfort and familiarity with Capers' scheme as the season has worn on. While it helps to be unpredictable defensively on third down, it also helps when the players have some pre-conceived thoughts about what their coordinator might dial up on those key plays, and that sense has simply taken time to develop.

"Our guys have a pretty good feel going in by down and distance what the top three or four calls are," Capers said. "And that's when you get to be better, when they're in that huddle and they have that feel and they say, 'Well, we're going to get one of these three or four calls.' Then you know that pretty much you're on the same page, because they know what we're trying to play to."

That's been evident in the team's current three-game winning streak, when opposing offenses are just 12-of-39 (30.8 percent) on third down, an even lower percentage than the overall season mark of 33.3. Detroit had six third-down conversions on Thanksgiving, but two of those were late in the fourth quarter with the game out of hand.

"I think it's been more of the scheme and the coaches putting us in the best position possible," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "We've been playing the schemes to the best we can and doing a good job at it. It's the best of both worlds. The coaches are doing their job and we're doing our job."

If the Packers can continue their success on third downs, they certainly like their chances of staying in the playoff hunt. There's no doubt third-down performance has helped them get this far, particularly the defense's climb to one of the top overall units in yards allowed for the season.

"It's been extremely important," Capers said. "Nothing's more frustrating than you go out and hold a team to no gain or a couple yards and it's third-and-8 and then they convert and they get a chance to line up and start all over again."

Unless, of course, it's the Packers' offense doing that.

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