Former Packers All-Pro safety LeRoy Butler and JS reporter Tom Silverstein discuss what’s missing from Aaron Rodgers' game and the Packers’ chances for making the playoffs. Bill Schulz, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY – The time to fix whatever ails the Green Bay Packers is now, as they sit at 4-5-1 heading to Minnesota on Sunday. There are several maladies, but one of the biggest issues for the club in 2018 has been inefficiency on third down. The team entered the week ranked 19th in the NFL on the money down, converting just 38.4 percent of the time.
It is the worst mark the team has had since finishing 27th in 2015 (32.9 percent). Since Aaron Rodgers took over as the starter in 2008, the team has finished outside the top 10 only three times – and only once when he played the bulk of the season.
By using the game-play finder available on www.pro-football-reference.com, the Journal-Sentinel and PackersNews.com were able to dive deep into the team’s issues on the offense’s money down.
Third down has actually been split into two problems for the Packers. One was inefficiency on first and second down, and the other is personnel-based.
The good news for Mike McCarthy’s group is that they have gradually improved on the former.
Through the first four games of the year, the Packers ran 26 plays on third down in which they needed seven or more yards to gain a first down. An astounding 20 times they needed 11 or more yards. Their conversion rate was unsurprisingly poor (19 percent).
In games five through eight, they improved on first and second down. The Packers ran 14 plays on third down needing seven yards or more (eight plays of needing 11 yards or more). The Packers went 0-for-14 on those plays, however.
Then against Miami and Seattle, Green Bay faced only two third downs needing seven yards or more, and one play resulted in a kneel down.
So, the offense has improved on first and second down as the season has gone on to make third downs more manageable.
“We definitely got the first part right,” McCarthy said. “Our down and distance on third down has been much better of late than it was early in the season.”
But, the team has gotten worse at converting on third and short as the weeks have gone on.
In games 1-4, they converted 67 percent of their third downs needing six or fewer yards. In games 5-8, 52 percent. The last two weeks? Just 36 percent of the time they have converted.
“When you evaluate each and every week, it comes down to the obvious,” McCarthy said. “You just have to execute better.”
And this is where the personnel issues have been spotlighted.
Davante Adams is tied for third in the NFL with 19 receptions on third down, converting 12 for first down. That number is tied for 12th. After that, tight end Jimmy Graham has 10 receptions on third down, seven for first down.
That makes sense, in terms of Rodgers looking for his two most experienced playmakers on a key down.
But after that, one can see the problems.
Per the league’s stats database, the Packers have run three-receiver sets 119 times out of a possible 126 third downs. Yet Randall Cobb remains the team’s third-leading pass catcher (and second wide receiver to Adams) on third down.
Cobb has missed five games.
“Well, it hurts Randall not playing,” Rodgers said. “Randall is a fantastic player, had a lot of success over the years for us. His ability in the slot is why he's stuck around the league for so long and will long after this year. He's a talented guy. We've been trying to move Davante around a little bit and put him in some of those spots. But it's all about execution in situational offense, and we just haven't been great in that throughout games and definitely haven't been great in that in the fourth quarter.”
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As for Rodgers’ other options in such situations, Marquez Valdes-Scantling is fourth on the team with five third-down receptions.
But after Valdes-Scantling it’s Ty Montgomery (four), who was traded Oct. 30 and then Geronimo Allison (three), who has missed five games and has been on injured reserve since Nov. 6.
While Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown have earned more playing time and have come up with some big plays, they’re non-factors when it comes to third down.
“It comes down to communication and experience,” Cobb said. “Obviously they’ve gained a little bit of experience, but not the experience that me and ‘G-Mo’ have. I’m sure that can be frustrating for him to not have his guys out there. He’s still trying to groom guys in the middle of the season.”
This is perhaps why the Packers have been sacked 17 times (Rodgers 16 times, DeShone Kizer once) on 116 drop backs on third down, with eight of them coming in the four games Allison and Cobb have missed together.
A potential solution
Perhaps a salve for McCarthy and Rodgers could be using the running game more – especially in short yardage.
Despite an uptick in shorter distances to go on third down of late, the team refuses to hand the ball off in such scenarios.
In the last six games, the Packers have had 17 third downs needing three yards or less. They have handed the ball off exactly once – a three-yard run by Aaron Jones on third-and-1 against Miami in the second quarter.
Since the start of the season, when needing three yards or less on third down, the Packers have handed it off just five times in 31 attempts at such distance. Jones has converted three first downs on his handoffs and Jamaal Williams has gone 1-for-2. Rodgers has run four times, converting on three of them.
While the Packers have improved at setting themselves up for success on third down in recent weeks, another step must be taken beginning this week in Minneapolis.
“We need to focus, coaches, we want to make sure we’re giving our guys the right concepts and the ability to adjust and the time for them to do it,” McCarthy said. “It really comes down to execution.”