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Third down at the root of Packers' problems

Defense needs to rush the passer


GREEN BAY – The Packers' focus on offense this week is on improving its rate of third-down conversions.

"We want to be able to move the ball consistently. We have to be better on third down," play-caller Tom Clements said.

The Packers are 27th in the NFL in third-down conversions. It's a decline that has been most distinct in recent weeks, and it's led to a 35-minute deficit in time of possession, which has impacted the defense negatively, as well.

An offense that has consistently been at the top of the rankings over the past several seasons now finds itself in unfamiliar territory: No. 25 in total yards, and No. 26 in passing yards and first downs.

Oddly, quarterback Aaron Rodgers is still near the top of the passer rankings. He's No. 5 with a 108.2 passer rating, and his 19 touchdown passes are only three off Tom Brady's 22. Rodgers has only thrown one more interception (3) than Brady.

When the numbers are crunched, the finger of fault points directly to third-down conversions. Simply put, the Packers haven't had the ball long enough to be the prolific offense it has been since 2009.

"Yeah, he's the same Aaron. I thought he competed his (butt) off (in Carolina)," Clements said. "He made some throws. He missed some, but that happens. Not every one is going to be completed."

Sunday, Rodgers and company face a Lions defense whose rankings are a far cry from last season's No 2 in total yards and No. 1 against the run. This season, the 1-7 Lions are No. 26 overall, No. 30 against the run and No. 18 against the pass. Sacks, however, are still formidable at 20.

"They're different, but they play hard. The strength of their defense is still up front," Clements said of the Lions. "We've had good practices. The guys have been upbeat and are anxious to get a victory."

James Starks becomes the Packers' starting running back this week, as Eddie Lacy continues to battle a mysterious slump.

"He's been productive," Clements said of Starks. "All that means is he starts the game. We're still going to rotate the backs."

Packers Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers is seeking a performance closer to how the defense played in the second half of last Sunday's loss in Carolina, as opposed to the 24 points the Packers allowed in the second quarter of that game.

The goal?

"Play the run as we did this past week and eliminate the big plays. It's pretty simple. You can't have a third-and-16 go for 59 yards," Capers said.

Asked how that happened, Capers explained: "You've got an athletic quarterback that can run and buy time, and that crossing route that started over here ends up all the way over here. That time element breaks down your zone coverage."

What it means is the Packers have to get back to rushing the passer. They failed to sack Peyton Manning in Denver two weeks ago, which marked the first time in 42 games the Packers didn't register a sack.

"Denver mixed run and play-action pass. Last week, (Carolina) max-protected a lot," Capers said.

Lions rookie kick returner Ameer Abdullah is a threat to score. He's averaging 28.2 yards per return and has a 48-yarder to his credit.

"They had an open date. They'll have some new wrinkles," Packers Special Teams Coordinator Ron Zook said of the Lions.

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