Third-down emphasis evident in Packers' offensive awakening
GREEN BAY – They already trailed by a touchdown before taking the field, so naturally you were curious.
The Green Bay Packers' maligned offense needed to respond. Didn’t mean it would. The Packers' offense has needed to respond for weeks and hasn’t. The frustration had built into a three-game losing streak, into a season spiraling toward no postseason and ultimately into a head-coaching change last week.
So it was fair to wonder how the Packers would respond to the Atlanta Falcons' early blow struck Sunday afternoon.
Then Aaron Rodgers connected on an 8-yard pass to rookie Equanimeous St. Brown. Then a 4-yard pass. Then another for 8 yards to Randall Cobb. A few plays later, the drive ended with a 7-yard score to Davante Adams.
There was nothing spectacular about how the Packers' offense found its rhythm early in what became a 34-20 home win against the Falcons. Rodgers’ lone shot play on second-and-2 was thrown away. But for the first time in weeks, and one of the only times this season, the Packers' offense looked like a structured, functional, cohesive group.
“It was new,” receiver Davante Adams said. “It was kind of, you know, like we hit the restart button a little bit. But it wasn’t, nothing drastic happened. It was just more so the mentality, and how we had to approach this game. Obviously, having a new head coach now for the time being, at least, we wanted to make sure we did as much as we can to buy into what he’s put forth for us as a game plan. We executed, and that’s what it looks like.”
The irresistible narrative will be how the Packers' offense, and especially Rodgers, played better without Mike McCarthy calling plays. And there’s truth in that, though not for the most dramatic, made-for-talking-show-television reasons.
Sunday was the start of the Joe Philbin era, and whether that lasts four games or longer, the Packers interim head coach and new play caller had a beneficial influence on the offense. It started during the week, when Philbin placed a renewed emphasis on third down. McCarthy was well aware the Packers struggled extending drives this season, but when Philbin scripted the schedule for his first week leading the offense, fixing third down was a primary goal.
“The biggest emphasis was third down,” tight end Lance Kendricks said. “We got more third-down reps in practice over the course of the week.”
The end result was an offense that ranked 26th in the NFL before Sunday, converting only 35.5 percent of third downs, finishing 7-for-13. It was only the second time this season the Packers converted more than half their third downs, the first coming in Week 4 against Buffalo (11-of-19). The Packers had been especially bad on third down the past three weeks, converting only 3 of 14 against Arizona, 2 of 10 at Minnesota and 3 of 11 at Seattle.
In other words, the Packers converted almost as many third downs Sunday (seven) as they had the previous three games (eight).
Third-down woes often prevented the Packers from finishing drives. On Sunday, they had three touchdown possessions of at least 70 yards. It was only the third game this season that has happened, and the first since their game at the Los Angeles Rams in early October.
“It was very refreshing,” Rodgers said. “I think the key, as I’ve been talking with you guys at my locker over the year, was situational football.”
There were other, subtle differences. The Packers rarely looked rushed at the line of scrimmage, thanks to pre-snap communication that appeared to be quicker and more deliberate. Philbin also used more personnel groupings.
“I think there was really clear roles,” Rodgers said.
The genesis was a pass game that stayed on schedule for one of the few times this season. Rodgers still extended plays, as seen in his season-high 44 rushing yards on three carries. But it’s telling that Philbin’s first drive calling plays, which had been scripted during the week, focused so acutely on a quick-timing pass game.
“I don’t know exactly,” Rodgers said when asked why the pass game stayed on schedule better. “The execution was a little bit better. There was a decent amount of man coverage. So it allows you to be a little more decisive. You kind of know where you’re going pretty much at the snap. So not a lot of reading defenders, just kind of picking a matchup you like. Went ‘Tae’s way early and often, and he obviously had a nice day.”
Yes, Davante Adams’ seven catches for 81 yards helped. But the Packers have had that kind of production from their top receiver all season. Rare have been the games in which they’ve executed so completely.
It would be easy to point at McCarthy’s absence as the biggest difference, but it certainly wasn’t the only change Sunday. The question, now, is whether the Packers can carry it on the road against a good Chicago Bears defense next Sunday.
“Naturally, if you’re not doing well and people are talking about it,” Adams said, “it’s going to put a little bit more added pressure on you. At the same time, we’re not going out there thinking about that. When I line up, I’m not thinking about what they’re saying about our offense and all that. I’m trying to execute it, and do my job.
“I think everybody kind of has the same mentality, but the gotta-have-its, we had a few of those today and came up with them. I think just the mentality and how guys are approaching it, that changed a little bit.”