Packers notes: Third-down conversion rate needs to improve

Jim Owczarski and Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin talk during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Monday, August 20, 2018 in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers are coming off games against defensive units in Chicago and Minnesota that are widely regarded as two of the more complete groups in the NFL – yet they face the No. 1-ranked defense in the league through two games in Washington on Sunday.

“Yeah, I mean it’s always nice to be ranked No. 1,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “They’ve got a good defense. They’ve played two good games on defense, forced some turnovers and getting after the quarterback.”

Washington has just three sacks as a team, but they do have 13 hits on the quarterback and three interceptions.

But some perspective is needed.

Washington held Arizona to six points, 14 first downs and 213 yards of offense in Week 1, but then the Los Angeles Rams shut the Cardinals out and held them to five first downs and 137 yards in Week 2. Washington did force Andrew Luck and the Colts to work and held him to a 77.2 quarterback rating, but Indianapolis was 9-for-16 (56 percent) on third down last week in their 21-9 victory.

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“They had eight third downs of 2 or 3 or less, and the ball was coming out so quick that Superman couldn’t get there in time,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “They were running pick plays and pick routes and all that stuff, so we’ve got to do a better job of trying to get them into third down and 7 or 8 so those guys can put their hands in the ground and rush.”

Despite the lofty overall team defense numbers, Washington is 24th in the league in preventing third-down conversions at 41.67 percent.

They are small sample sizes, but the Packers are 21st in the NFL in third-down conversions, making 34.62 percent of them through two weeks.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said about what hasn’t quite clicked yet on third down for the offense. “Some of the things we’re still working through, the timing, the rhythm, the spacing. The passing game is a lot of anticipation, it’s a lot of trust that has to be built up between the quarterback and the protection, the quarterback and the receivers, the timing and the spacing and the releases, adjusting certain routes to certain coverages. There’s little improvements we need to make in all those areas.”

On track to return

While Rodgers (knee) and Kevin King (groin) missed practice Thursday, the Packers look like they’re getting linebacker Oren Burks (shoulder) back for Washington. The rookie out of Vanderbilt has been practicing on a limited basis the last two weeks but has been full go this week.

“Well, it would be great to get OB back out there number one,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “As far as his involvement in the defense, that's a work in progress. Obviously, his primary role will be special teams. We'll see what the week brings us. But yeah, I thought he had a really good camp. You could see him progressing through training camp, so it will be great to get him back out there.”

Safety Josh Jones (ankle) practiced on a limited basis, which is an upgrade from the last two weeks. It’s possible that the second-year player will be physically able to play for the first time in the regular season Sunday – if he’s needed.

“Everything we do is matchup based, so it’s week-to-week,” secondary coach Jason Simmons said. “If he fits what he wants to do to control the other team’s offense then I’m sure coach (defensive coordinator Mike) Pettine won’t hesitate to put him in there. It’s all week-to-week. If his skill set dictates that he should be in there, then he’ll be in there.”

Corner Davon House (biceps) was also limited in practice Thursday.

Covering up

The Packers drafted cornerback Josh Jackson to cover opposing wide receivers, but they have found that he can help them defend tight ends, which is something they haven’t done well in recent years.

At 6-foot, 197 pounds, Jackson is bigger than the average corner and his arm length allows him to cover players taller than him.

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In the first two games, Jackson spent a good deal of time covering Bears tight end Trey Burton and Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. The two wound up catching 8 of the 14 passes thrown their way for 87 yards (10.9 average) and no touchdowns.

“It’s helpful because I laugh at some of the tight ends that they’ve listed as tight ends,” Pettine said. “I say tight end on flip card only. They’re essentially just big wide receivers.

“We’re fortunate to have a hybrid type defensive back like Josh that has corner coverage ability but is physical enough that he can handle being closer to the action and handle covering tight ends.”

Jackson said he can cover anybody the Packers ask him to, but that tight ends are a challenge because of their size.

“I feel like I’m able to put myself in a good position when I’m covering them,” Jackson said. “You have to be able to have great leverage and be in good position on the ball.”

Missing in action

So far, defensive linemen Dean Lowry and Montravius Adams have been afterthoughts in the rotation upfront.

Lowry has seen 33 snaps in the first two weeks of the season and Adams has seen just eight.

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In the meantime, Mike Daniels, Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenny Clark have been piling up snaps because it has been hard to take them off the field in two crucial NFC North games.

“They’re quality guys and we want to continue to build the depth and make sure those guys are rotating series by series, so we have fresher bodies all the time,” defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery. “Ultimately, with the way the game is going with the more reps on offense, we want to have fresher guys all the time.

“I imagine seeing his reps continue to go up.”

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