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Third-Down Challenge Coming On Sunday


The Packers ranked No. 3 in the league on third down this season, and QB Aaron Rodgers' 133.5 QB rating on third down led the league.

The Packers have been one of the best teams in the league this season when it comes to converting third downs, and that aspect of their offensive success will be put to the test on Sunday by a Cardinals defense that has been adept at stopping teams in those situations.

Green Bay finished the season ranked No. 3 in the NFL on third down, converting at a 47.0 percent (103-of-219) clip, the second-best mark by a Packers team in the last 14 seasons (47.3 in 2004), while the Cardinals were No. 6 in the league in third-down defense, limiting their opponents to just a 35.3 percent (82-of-232) conversion rate.

Arizona's ability to get after the quarterback has contributed to its success on third down, evidenced by the 43 sacks (No. 6 in the league) posted this season, 17 of which (No. 3 in the NFL) came on third down. Those sacks have helped the Cardinals put their opponents in 3rd-and-long (10 or more yards) 73 times this season, fourth most in the NFL.

The Cardinals' sacks have been spread around their 3-4 scheme, with defensive end Calais Campbell (seven), defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (seven), and outside linebackers Bertrand Berry (six) and Clark Haggans (five) all contributing. Arizona was one of only three teams in the league that had four players record five-plus sacks this season.

"They have three good qualities you need on third down," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "They can get a good four-man rush because they've got talented rushers. Secondly, they've got a good blitz package. Then they've got very good talent in the secondary, so you've got guys that can play man or zone with equal effectiveness. When you do that, you can mix up coverages. You can't necessarily get a bead on them from an offensive standpoint."

The Cardinals were consistent in their ability to stop teams on third down in 2009, never allowing a team to convert more than 50 percent of its attempts in a game this season. Carolina (8-of-16 in Week 8) and San Francisco (8-of-16 in Week 14) had the most success, both of those Arizona losses, with Seattle (0-of-11 in Week 6), the N.Y. Giants (4-of-15 in Week 7) and St. Louis (4-of-16 in Week 11) struggling the most in those situations.

Green Bay was equally steady in its success on third down, posting six games with a better than 50 percent conversion rate. Only twice all season did the Packers convert less than 30 percent of their third downs in a game, both coming early in the season vs. Chicago in Week 1 (4-of-14) and at St. Louis in Week 3 (2-of-9). They have succeeded in all situations as well, including a 50 percent conversion rate (28-of-56) on 3rd-and-6-plus (No. 1 in the NFL) and a 26.1 percentage (18-of-69) on 3rd-and-10 plus (No. 5).

"I think we have mixed things up and we have spread the ball around," wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. "I think we have gotten a little bit of everything in there, some screens, some downfield throws, some quick throws, a couple of runs here and there. So I think we have a good varied attack, and there has been good execution.

"We've had a number of big conversions, so that's good to see. I think that type of thing breeds some confidence that, 'Hey, we're not just automatically punting because it's 3rd-and-12. We can make this.'"

The Packers have improved on third down each season under Head Coach Mike McCarthy, with a 39.2 conversion rate in 2006 (No. 12 in the league), a 42.6 mark in '07 (No. 8), and a 44.2 rate last season (No. 5) before moving up to the No. 3 spot in '09.

Leading the charge on third down this season has been quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who finished the season with a league-best 133.5 rating on third down, the highest number posted by an NFL quarterback since Sunday's opposing quarterback, Arizona's Kurt Warner, registered a 137.3 rating in his MVP-winning 1999 season with the St. Louis Rams.

Rodgers recorded league bests on third down in yards (1,710), touchdowns (14) and interceptions (zero), along with a 67.5 completion percentage that ranked fourth in the NFL. He was also third in the league among quarterbacks with 129 rushing yards on 16 carries (8.1 avg.) on third down.

"He has a very good command of the game," Philbin said. "On third down, often teams kind of present you a vanilla-type shell and then spin and move to a variety of coverages after the snap. His mind processes that information rapidly, and then he has the physical skills with his arm and his feet to defeat the particular coverage that we get.

"Gosh, his scrambling for first downs is huge. Not throwing the ball where they have got three guys and we've got one is huge. His accuracy is outstanding. You watch the tape, it's impressive."

As Robinson referenced, Rodgers has been able to spread the ball around, with six different receivers catching eight-plus passes this season on third down. Wide receivers Greg Jennings (26 catches for 596 yards) and Donald Driver (20-304) led the way, but the offense also got production from the tight end spots with Jermichael Finley (15-270) and Spencer Havner (four touchdowns), and at running back from Brandon Jackson (13-128).

{sportsad300}"It's a heightened sense of focus and it's something we work on in practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday," Rodgers said. "We've got a great plan every week and the guys have done a nice job picking up the blitzes, and when I've got guys like Donald and Greg who can make plays after the catch, and Jordy (Nelson) and James (Jones) who are going to be matchup problems for a third and fourth corner, and Jermichael who can get down the middle and make plays as well outside, I just need to get the ball out of my hand quickly and get it to those guys."

Robinson is in charge of third-down preparation during the week, studying what the opponent's tendencies are as far as types of coverage they like to use, how much they blitz, what kind of pressure they utilize, and then matching that up with what Green Bay's offense does best in what he called a "chess match" as the offensive staff puts together the game plan.

"He does a great job and is very thorough in terms of what we are going to get from our opposition and what we have in our system that works, that we think can be good," Philbin said. "We try to build something in our OTAs and our mini-camps and training camp and the preseason, hopefully a big enough package that we are not inventing a lot of new stuff.

"So when we get into a game, we are using stuff that players have seen a bunch of times, they have run it against a bunch of coverages, and they have seen it against a bunch of different looks. Hopefully the concepts are consistent and they don't change a whole lot. I think that's been a key to what we have been doing."

Another key has been the Packers' improved play on the offensive line in the second half of the season, along with Jackson, who has been lauded by Head Coach Mike McCarthy and Philbin for his performance in pass protection on third down. After giving up 41 sacks in the first nine games this season, the most in the NFL over that span, the Packers allowed just nine sacks in the final seven contests.

"We have stressed from the start that it's not third down that is only responsible for third-down success," Robinson said. "It's first and second down because that is what puts you in the situations to have manageable third downs.

"When you do, then your percentage is going to be higher. I think we have done that, especially in the second half of the season, we have done a much better job of staying out of bad situations and getting backed up and lost-yardage plays on first and second down."

The Packers have picked up four or more yards on first down 49.7 percent of the time (No. 5 in the league), and staying away from negative-yardage plays on Sunday will give them the best chance to continue the success they have had keeping drives alive with those third-down conversions.

"It's a big down in football," Philbin said. "They are all important, every snap is important, but just for so many reasons, field position, obviously scoring points. It's a big play in the game. It's fun to game plan and get the guys ready for third down.

"I think they like the challenge. It's a little bit of a do-or-die situation, and our guys have responded pretty well."

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