Aaron Rodgers often extends plays with his feet. The Packers’ offense would do well to take a cue from its quarterback and extend more drives by improving its performance on third down.
In what has become the new normal, Green Bay again failed to convert third downs at a rate of 50 percent or better Sunday in losing 37-29 to the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. The visitors mounted but one drive lasting more than five minutes in coming up short in time of possession for a fourth game in a row.
Longer drives can lead to more points as a team edges closer to an opponent’s end zone. Longer drives can protect a defense by relegating the unit to the sidelines where even the most porous is unable to surrender big plays.
For a team that has been outscored 66-39 in its last two games and has yielded a franchise-record 1,475 yards in its last three, keeping an opponent’s offense off the field for as long as possible should rank high on its list of priorities.
In each of nine previous seasons, coach Mike McCarthy’s Packers posted a third-down conversion rate of 50 percent or better on at least three occasions. Green Bay has one such outing this year, in the opener against the Bears where it converted six of 10 third downs.
Since, the team has failed to hit even 40 percent. That’s seven straight sub-40s, an all-time low under McCarthy.
Sunday’s Panthers-Packers game provided an example of the importance of third down. With his team up 30-14 early in the fourth quarter, Cam Newton bolted from the pocket to gain seven yards and a first down.
But McCarthy challenged the position of the ball at the time linebacker Jake Ryan tackled the Panthers’ quarterback. The play was reviewed, the ball brought back a foot or so and Carolina punted. Had the Panthers converted, they might have put together the kind of long drive that would have prevented the Packers from rallying as they did.
Green Bay’s offense had little success on third down. In fact, it can be argued the team had its worst showing in 152 regular-season games with McCarthy as coach.
The Pack converted 3 of 14 tries (21.4 percent). Unimpressive, yes, but the team has finished with a lower percentage 15 times under McCarthy.
But the club bottomed out when comparing the yardage needed on third down to what was delivered. Since 2006, the gap between the two had never been wider.
The Packers were in third and long much of the afternoon. Ten or more yards were required seven times, and the team would have needed 133 yards to successfully convert all 14 third downs it faced.
Rodgers and the offense gained but 32 yards on those third-down plays. That’s 101 fewer yards than what was needed.
On the three successful conversions, the team gained 44 yards with completions to Davante Adams (13, 13) and Randall Cobb (18). The team lost 12 yards on its other 11 third-down plays including three sacks of Rodgers for minus-23 yards.
The Packers needed an average of 9.5 yards when up against third down. The distance was formidable as the team produced seven drives (not counting the final desperate play involving laterals) in which it failed to register even one first down.
More than half of those short possessions occurred in the second quarter. Carolina scored after three of them and would have made it 4-for-4 had Graham Gano not missed a 43-yard field goal attempt.
Under McCarthy, Green Bay is 7-10 in games in which its average distance on third down was greater than nine. In his first NFL start, Rodgers beat the Vikings 24-19 despite an average of 11.5 on 10 third-down plays.
Any third-down resurgence will need to be spearheaded by Rodgers, who three times has led the NFL in passer rating on third down (2009, ‘12 and ‘14). His rating of 91.7 this season is well below the 133.5, 110.8 and 121.7 he compiled during those seasons, respectively.
Extending plays, lengthening drives. Continued improvement could help facilitate an extended run should the Packers reach the playoffs.
Since 2006, regular-season games with the greatest differences between third-down yards needed and third-down yards gained.