No payoff for Packers in forced punts
For as often as the Packers compelled the Bears to put the foot back into football in the 190th regular-season meeting between the teams, in the end it was the Green and Gold that got the boot.
Green Bay’s defense forced Chicago to punt on each of its first five possessions. The Packers’ failure to make more of this development cost them dearly in a disconcerting 17-13 loss to their oldest rivals on Thanksgiving.
The four-point setback came less than two weeks after the team dropped an equally painful 18-16 decision to the Lions. In that game as well, Green Bay did not make hay while its opponent struggled to move the ball early.
The defeats, coming as they did at Lambeau Field, mean the Packers will have a losing record at home against division rivals for the first time under coach Mike McCarthy. They had been no worse than 2-1 against the Bears, Lions and Vikings every year since 2006 with the exception of 2013 (1-1-1).
Forcing an opponent to punt five times to start a game doesn’t happen often, at least not to the Packers. So to do so twice within a span of three games and come away losers both times has to be frustrating.
Since 1954, Green Bay has forced an opponent to punt on each of its first five possessions 31 times. Its record in those games is 24-7.
In all but one of the seven losses, the Packers did not tally more than seven points on their own initial five drives. Four times they failed to score.
Precious few defenses can continue to induce punt after punt, so the idea is to produce as many points as possible while the opposition’s offense labors.
In this regard, Aaron Rodgers and Co. dropped the ball. While Detroit spun its wheels, Green Bay put up all of three points, that a 44-yard Mason Crosby field goal. While Chicago padded along, the Packers got seven on a Rodgers-to-Eddie Lacy touchdown pass.
So by the time the Lions landed on their feet, they trailed just 3-0. When the Bears awoke, they were down only 7-0.
Those two deficits were overcome with relative ease. Detroit moved in front for good (9-3) in the third quarter on a 2-yard pass from Matthew Stafford to Brandon Pettigrew. Chicago did so (14-10) with 30 seconds remaining in the first half after Jeremy Langford banged over from a yard out.
So how ineffectual is a typical five-punts-in-five-possessions team? In most cases it runs fewer than 25 plays, gains fewer than 100 yards and picks up no more than a handful of first downs on its first five series.
For nearly 20 minutes, Green Bay had the Bears in that position. Chicago ran 17 plays, gained 52 yards and earned but a single first down.
The Bears started their opening drives from their 49-, 10-, 20-, 17- and 34-yard lines. Only once did they run a play beyond the 50 and that – a Jay Cutler pass intended for Marquess Wilson – fell incomplete.
Chicago was shut out on third down. Cutler went 0-for-5 and was unable to overcome distances ranging from two to seven yards.
The Packers sometimes helped Cutler into an incompletion, as when cornerbacks Quinten Rollins and Sam Shields came barreling his way on a blitz midway through the first quarter. The Bears sometimes hurt their own cause as when Langford dropped a pass that would have brought a first down early in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, Green Bay’s first five opportunities brought yards and first downs, but only one score. The team gained 114 yards on 26 plays and collected seven first downs.
Like the Bears, the Packers could not convert third down. They went 0-for-4 and did not face a third down on their touchdown drive.
Last year, the Packers had little trouble under these circumstances. The Vikings, Panthers and Buccaneers all punted on their first five possessions and Green Bay blew past them 42-10, 38-17 and 20-3.
Of course, the Packers were red hot in first halves a year ago, outscoring their opponents 310-146.
With their offense often out of sync this season, the Packers are in danger of becoming a five-punt team themselves. That has happened only once under McCarthy, and the result was as ugly as those against the Lions and Bears.
On Sept. 24, 2012, Tim Masthay punted on Green Bay’s first five possessions against the Seattle Seahawks at Century Link Field. The game ended with the infamous “Fail Mary” play in which Golden Tate allegedly caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson.
Eric Goska is a Packers historian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.