Three-and-outs setting back Packers' attack

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) gets sacked by defensive end Chris Baker (92) against the Washington Redskins at Fedex Field on Nov. 20, 2016.

GREEN BAY - In the first quarter of the Green Bay Packers' loss to Washington, wide receiver Davante Adams failed to secure a third-down pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw to his left with Adams isolated against cornerback Bashaud Breeland.

Breeland’s left hand rattled the midsection of Adams to terminate a play that blurred the lines of drop and deflection. Either way, the end result was a small slice of history: Never in Rodgers’ career had the Packers gone three-and-out on their first three possessions of a game.

“We had a rough start to the game,” Rodgers said in his postgame news conference. “It’s tough and we didn’t get going early. That would have helped our defense out if we could have gotten off to a better start.”

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Another sluggish first quarter underscored a pair of flaws that have hindered the Packers in each of their last three losses, all of which, it can be argued, came against teams with inferior talent — Washington, Tennessee and Indianapolis. That the problems go hand-in-hand is hardly surprising: The Packers can’t score in the first quarter because of a crippling spike in three-and-outs.

“That’s something that we’ll continue to emphasize moving forward just like in the past few weeks,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said last week. “That’s an area we have to continue to clean up, just as far as overall execution, how we start the game, our tempo, and our ability to execute on those particular plays.”

Historically, the Packers largely have been unencumbered by three-and-outs during the Rodgers era. Beginning in 2008, when Rodgers became the starting quarterback, the Packers ranked in the top 11 of three-and-out percentage six times in the next eight years. Four times they finished in the top five.

In other words, the Packers were consistently among the best teams in the league at avoiding three-and-outs. Their percentages and ranks during that time reflect an impressive level of consistency, according to data from Football Outsiders:

2008 – three-and-outs on 36.9 percent of drives, 11th in the NFL

2009 – 19.5 percent, 5th

2010 – 25.7 percent, 23rd

2011 – 16.1 percent, 4th

2012 – 17.8 percent, 3rd

2013 – 21.4 percent, 8th (Rodgers only played nine games due to injury)

2014 – 14.1 percent, 2nd

2015 – 24.2 percent, 20th

Through Week 10, the Packers have gone three-and-out on 18.9 percent of their possessions, a respectable clip ranked eighth in the NFL and not far removed from their better years with Rodgers.

It should be noted, however, that the Packers log three-and-outs nearly twice as often as Washington, the league leader, which incur such problems on just 9.7 percent of drives. Washington went three-and-out twice in 11 drives Sunday night; the Packers did so three times in the same number of possessions.

“We’ve got to do a better job of starting the game out to get a lead for our defense,” Rodgers said. “ … We just need to find a way to get that rhythm at the start of the game so we can get off to a better start.”

Rodgers’ statement points toward the compounding of such problems in recent weeks.

Earlier this season the Packers incurred four three-and-outs during a three-game stretch against Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta, including just one each against the latter two teams. That number doubled to eight three-and-outs in the most recent three games against Indianapolis, Tennessee and Washington, all of which were losses and two of which were blowouts.

Their three-and-out percentage in the last three games jumped to 22.2 percent. It reached 25 percent against Tennessee and Washington.

“We’ve got to start fast,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to convert that first third down and get into a rhythm and get going.”

Even more concerning is the timing and manner of their flameouts. First the timing: Of their eight three-and-outs in the last three games, seven of them have come before halftime. Of their 24 total three-and-outs this season, two-thirds of them took place in the first or second quarter.

Now the manner of their struggles: A thorough review of the Packers’ eight three-and-outs during the last three weeks revealed an interesting phenomenon. Aside from two sacks of Rodgers, both of which put the offense way behind the chains, the Packers did not have any plays resulting in negative yardage.

In other words, the offense never had to fight uphill after early runs that lost yards. Nor was it stonewalled at the line of scrimmage after failed handoffs on third and short. Instead, all eight drives ended with pass attempts by Rodgers — one completion, five incompletions, one sack, one interception — that highlight an extended stretch of detrimental performances.

It culminated against Washington with a slice of history the Packers would rather forget.

"It just really came down to execution,” McCarthy said of the three-and-outs against Washington's defense. “There was nothing really out of the norm that they gave us.”

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