Cook becoming dangerous third-down option

Ryan Wood
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GREEN BAY - Aaron Rodgers shimmied to his left. He barely had time to think, much less react, before Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski’s right hand was draped around his right shoulder.

Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook (89) make s reception for 27 yards despite the efforts of Chicago Bears inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (44) during the first  quarter of their game Sunday, December 18, 2016 at Soldier Field.

This was the Green Bay Packers' initial third-down attempt Sunday, and it was off to a bad start. Kwiatkoski came unblocked on a blitz. Rodgers, gimpy right calf and all, scrambled to save a play.

After a couple steps, Rodgers lofted a pass downfield to his big tight end. Jared Cook rewarded his quarterback’s trust with a first down.

“A matchup concern,” coach Mike McCarthy called Cook. “I think that’s obvious, just the way when you line him up in different spots, how they react to him. You go to the first third-and-3 there, and the matchup he has on the corner route.

“When they give you those opportunities for those matchups, he’s a tough guy to handle.”

Cook caught a pair of third-down conversions on the Packers' opening touchdown drive against the Bears. After his size against Bears defensive back Demontre Hurst gave Rodgers a bigger target, Cook used his speed to separate from Kwiatkowski on a 10-yard out route three plays later.

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The Packers' next third-down conversion didn’t come until Rodgers heaved a 60-yard pass downfield to Jordy Nelson on their final offensive play before a spike and a game-winning Mason Crosby field goal.

In between, there were seven consecutive failed third downs Sunday at Soldier Field. It was one of the few blemishes for an offense that had no turnovers and just two penalties, but it became a big problem.

Rodgers’ long completion to Nelson bailed out a defense that would have had some tough explaining to do if the Packers left Chicago without a win. But defense hardly was the lone culprit responsible for squandering a 17-point fourth-quarter lead. Both sides of the ball played their part.

“It definitely felt like our third down was pretty bad,” right guard T.J. Lang said amid a happy and relieved postgame locker room.

Third down didn’t hurt the Packers on the scoreboard. They dropped 30 points on the Bears, a number that’s good enough to win most weeks. In the third quarter, they strung together a pair of touchdown drives without facing a single third down.

But their inability to convert third down derailed their fourth quarter. Twice, the Packers responded to Bears touchdowns with three-and-outs. While the Packers needed to keep Chicago out of the end zone, any defense is better when its offense moves the chains.

“They come score a touchdown,” Lang said, “and we try to rebound and kind of keep the momentum. We go three-and-out, and they score again. Then we go three-and-out.

“We just allowed them to keep the momentum there in the fourth quarter with the three-and-outs. We’ll learn from that. We’ll get better.”

Rodgers’ lack of mobility coupled with tight coverage from the Bears' secondary were perhaps the biggest issues. Rodgers was sacked three times on third down, with one overturned because of a defensive holding penalty, and failed to convert two more as a runner.

That’s where Cook could have potentially helped more. While he caught six passes for 85 yards, second on the Packers only to Nelson, he wasn’t targeted on a third down after the opening drive.

“He’s another element (we) can add to the game,” Nelson said. “We saw it in Washington, and it’s something that defenses have to adjust to, and we adjust to throughout the weeks. The more guys that we have out there that can make plays, obviously the better situation we’re in.

“He’s a big target. He can move. He can cover a lot of ground. Obviously the more plays he makes and gets more time back on the field, the confidence grows with Aaron.”

Among the Packers offense’s biggest improvements since last season has been third-down conversion. They rank third in the NFL behind New Orleans and Washington, converting 46.2 percent of their third downs. That’s a major jump from ranking 27th in the league with a 34.1 conversion rate a year ago.

As their season turned with four straight wins, their third-down conversion trended the opposite direction. The Packers are tied for 24th in converting 33 percent of their third downs over the past three weeks. They converted 4-of-12 against Houston, 4-of-11 against Seattle and 3-of-10 against Chicago.

McCarthy bristled Monday when asked whether the Packers should more consistently get Cook involved in the passing game, but Cook might provide the easiest solution. Tight ends are valuable on third down because of the mismatches they create against defensive backs and linebackers.

Most of Cook’s production since returning from a two-month ankle injury has come on third down. Cook has seven catches for 147 yards on third down in his past five games. On first and second downs, he has 17 catches for 84 yards. In his past five games, Cook has caught seven of the eight third-down passes Rodgers has thrown to him.

It's the kind of consistency a good third-down offense largely has lacked the past three weeks.

“I feel like I’m there for Aaron whenever he needs me,” Cook said. “Me and him are continuing to build our rapport and get better as tight end and quarterback. He just stays in my ear. We just communicate, and whenever he sees things, we just make sure we stay on the same page.

“When you know the sticks, when you know third-down situations and you know what he needs, you’re able to get there. And you’re able to get what the team needs to keep the chains moving.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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