Third-down efficiency has been huge for the Packers this season and Sunday was the best example
Last season, Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said that for the Packers to be a playoff team, the offense needed to convert 40 percent of their third downs.
They fell short at 36 percent and made it to the playoffs anyway. But the Packers’ quest to reach the Super Bowl was cut short in San Francisco, where the offense only converted three third downs on nine attempts in the NFC Championship game.
With nearly an extra year in head coach Matt LaFleur’s offensive scheme, the Packers evolved into masters of efficiency. Their 31-24 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field captured the essence of their success in 2020. The offense converted 73 percent of its third downs, a season-high and the Packers' best since the win over the Houston Texans in Week 7 (58.3 percent)
“Little different efficiency this year,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Last year, we weren't great on third down. We didn't start games out like we did this year.
“Obviously I've been pretty efficient through the air and taking care of the football, but being aggressively opportunistic is definitely how I feel like my approach has been this season.”
Going into their game against the Lions, the Packers converted 47.9 percent of the time on third down, which ranked first in the NFC and fourth in the NFL. The Packers converted on eight of 11 opportunities in an effort spearheaded by wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
On third and 7 in the third quarter, Valdes-Scantling drew a holding penalty for a fresh set of downs. Valdes-Scantling and left guard Lucas Patrick committed holding penalties later in the drive, but Valdes-Scantling managed to dig the offense out of the hole on 3rd and 14. Rodgers connected with Valdes-Scantling for a 21-yard gain that kept an eventual touchdown drive alive.
“It's a really smart play by him and then strong hands back to the ball,” Rodgers said. “I told him after the game, I'm just really proud of him. He's got a couple weeks without a ton of targets. Didn't hang his head.”
Prior to their win over the Lions, the Packers had attempted seven plays from third and 11 to third and 15 this season. Rodgers’ third-and-14 pass to Valdes-Scantling marked the Packers’ second conversion from that range and brought the total attempts to eight.
However, third-and-long situations are a rare occurrence in the Packers’ offense – their seven plays between third and 11 and third and 15 rank 30th in the NFL. Most of the Packers’ converted third downs against the Lions came on what LaFleur called “third and manageable,” or roughly 5 yards away from the first down marker. LaFleur credited the offense’s ability to get in short-yardage situations to the efforts of its personnel.
“I think our guys are just doing a great job when given their opportunities to win one-on-one and they're going out there and doing that,” LaFleur said. “I don't think it's just one guy. It's been multiple guys. That's encouraging, because if a defense wants to, they can really target and try to take an individual away and a lot of times that happens to be the guy wearing No. 17 (Davante Adams). So it was really encouraging to see other guys step up and make key catches and able to get first downs.”
Adams was not targeted on third down against the Lions. Adams attributed the third-down success to the team’s preparation leading up to the game.
“I feel like we had a really good idea of how they were gonna play on these third downs,” Adams said. “So it was really just about executing, Aaron seeing it and getting us to plays that were really good for us.
“I felt like we did what we had to do and everybody made sure that they handled their part. So when we do that, we're pretty tough to beat.
Following their victory against the Lions, the Packers now are converting 50.1 percent of their third downs this season. While that rate may decrease by the end of the regular season, the Packers are setting themselves for a deeper playoff run with their improvement from 2019.
“Typically, when you're able to do that with the kind of caliber players that we have, our quarterback and the ability of our offensive line to hold up in pass pro and then our guys just making key play after key play,” LaFleur said, “You put yourself in a favorable position and I think that's gonna be a key ingredient moving forward.”