Subpar fourth-down defense could cost Packers
GREEN BAY — Fifty seconds before Jeff Janis caught the Hail Mary that launched his cult stardom into orbit, the Green Bay Packers wide receiver caught another to keep the Super Bowl dream afloat.
Facing fourth and 20 from his own 4-yard line, quarterback Aaron Rodgers spun out of the pocket and heaved downfield. Janis, whose participation was made possible by injuries to Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, had generated a sliver of space behind cornerback Justin Bethel of the Arizona Cardinals. He reached over his right shoulder to secure Rodgers’ pass, and with it an improbable 60-yard gain.
Though the Packers eventually lost the 2015 NFC playoff game — Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald took advantage of a blown coverage in overtime — the clutch connection from Rodgers to Janis is symbolic of playoff football, when teams come face to face with their dying breath and have one last chance to produce.
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It’s quite possible either the Packers or Detroit Lions will face such a moment Sunday night in what amounts to an NFC North championship game. And who performs best on crucial fourth downs may go a long way toward deciding a winner.
In that regard — fourth-down defense — the Packers and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have cause for concern. Their opponents have gone for it on fourth down 18 times so far this season, and 67 percent of the time the offense found a way to convert. Only eight defenses in the NFL have been worse.
“We played pretty well on third down last week but we were 0-for-3 on fourth down,” Capers said of last Saturday’s victory over the Minnesota Vikings. “You saw how that impacted their two touchdown drives because they had conversions there.”
The Packers led by 18 points when the Vikings began their first possession of the fourth quarter, and some will argue the margin was insurmountable. But quarterback Sam Bradford kept throwing and cobbled together two touchdown drives in the final nine minutes. They were made possible by three consecutive fourth-down conversions.
On fourth and 4 he found wide receiver Adam Thielen for an 11-yard gain, and five plays later Bradford connected with Stefon Diggs for a 3-yard score. The next possession, which ended with a touchdown reception by Thielen, his second of the game, featured conversions on fourth and 12 followed by fourth and 4.
“Those are the kind of plays that we’ve got to make on Sunday night when we get in those situations,” Capers said. “You’ve got to find a way to get off the field. Late in the game or if you’re up by a couple scores, it’s going to become a four-down game and that gets to be tougher because they’ve got four downs as opposed to three downs.”
While prominent against the Vikings, the issue of fourth-down defense lurked throughout the year. It began in the season opener, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, when quarterback Blake Bortles converted three of his four attempts. (The fourth resulted in negative yardage when receiver Allen Hurns was tackled behind the line of scrimmage on a short pass to the right.)
From there, the Vikings (1-of-2 in Week 2), Lions (1-of-1 in Week 3), Dallas Cowboys (1-of-1), Atlanta Falcons (1-of-1), Washington Redskins (1-of-1) and Houston Texans (1-of-2) all found success before Minnesota raised the issue once again last week.
“Sometimes it’s one of those things where we’re up and they have to go for it on fourth down,” rookie nose tackle Kenny Clark said. “When we’re up, sometimes we’ll give away probably like a short check down and they’ll probably run for a first down. But I think it’s more so just because we’re up and we don’t want to give that big play. They’re just trying to stay alive. We’re just trying to keep people out of the end zone.”
And Clark is right — to an extent. Of the 12 fourth-down conversions by opposing offenses, six of them took place with the Packers protecting a lead in the fourth quarter. But that leaves six additional plays in which Capers’ unit was bested during the flow of the game.
Across the league, offenses have converted on fourth down 51 percent of the time through 16 weeks of the regular season. The Packers’ defense, which has faced 18 fourth-down attempts (tied for the third-highest total), is allowing conversions at a significantly higher rate of 67 percent.
“I think the main thing is just knowing the situation, knowing down and distance,” Clark said. “I mean yeah, fourth and 1 and fourth and 10 are two different things, but just knowing the situation (is key). People are going to go hard count on you sometimes, people can quick count you and get you off balance. I think it’s really just knowing where you’re at on the field and knowing the situation and knowing how many yards they need to get a first down.”
Added linebacker Blake Martinez: “You kind of get more tendency-driven toward that point. … Obviously there’s not many moments where you see fourth downs and teams going for it, so you kind of look at what do they go to on must-get third downs or those types of things to kind of predict what they would want to do moving into fourth down.”
In other words, it stands to reason the Cardinals were not expecting Janis, a bit player on offense, to explode for a 60-yard gain on fourth down and a 41-yard touchdown two snaps later. Such an outburst was unlikely to fall within the predictive norm.
But maybe Sunday will flip the script; the Packers yearning for a pivotal stop.
Maybe their tendency shines through; or maybe their Super Bowl dream continues.