Poor first-down play plagues Packers

Eric Goska
For Press-Gazette Media
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First tooth. First car. First love.

Firsts are often memorable.

First cavity. First speeding ticket. First love handle.

Some moments endure for the wrong reasons.

The Detroit Lions, the Packers’ opponent Thursday night, exposed a shortcoming in Green Bay’s offense the last time the two teams met. This deficiency involves first downs, and the news isn’t good.

The Packers-Lions game of Nov. 15 was memorable. It was Detroit’s first win in Wisconsin since 1991. It was Aaron Rodgers’ first time throwing 50 or more passes in a game. It was the first time the Green and Gold followed a winning streak of six or greater with three straight losses.

For Titletown, the game was noteworthy for all the wrong reasons.

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Buried deep in a sea of troubling statistics was the Packers’ performance — or lack thereof — on first down. It was their worst showing against the Lions in that regard in any regular-season game since the start of the 16-game schedule in 1978.

Which is more important:­­ first down or third down? The NFL has tracked third-down conversions for decades, but it also keeps tabs on yards teams gain and allow on first down.

We’ll let the cyber world wrestle over the answer. Clearly, both are important.

Against the Lions last month, Rodgers and the offense gained 81 yards on 34 first-down plays. That’s an average of just 2.38 yards per play.

The Lions allowed only three gains of 10 or more yards. The longest was a 12-yard completion to tight end Justin Perillo in the fourth quarter.

James Starks rushed for 17 yards on seven first-down carries. Rodgers was 13-of-26 for 71 yards and a touchdown (69.1 rating). He was sacked once for minus-seven.

Rodgers’ 11-yard TD toss to Perillo was the highlight. It pulled Green Bay to within 18-16 with 32 seconds remaining.

The average distance the Packers faced on second down was 8.66 yards. That remains a season high and is one of four games in which the team has come up against an average greater than eight.

For Detroit’s defense, it was their best effort of the season. It surpassed the first-down work they did against the Broncos (3.41) and Cardinals (3.54).

The Lions had never held the Packers below a 2.5 average on first down in any of their previous 74 meetings. The closest was 2.56 on Oct. 14, 1979, when Green Bay won 24-16 despite quarterback David Whitehurst completing only one first-down pass, that an 11-yarder to tight end Paul Coffman that set up the Packers’ first touchdown.

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While Green Bay couldn’t get going on that early down against Detroit, the Bears (6.61) and Vikings (6.74) had no such trouble. So it’s likely the Packers’ unimpressive showing had more to do with them than the Lions. That idea gains traction after looking at how the team has fared under coach Mike McCarthy.

In seven of the last nine seasons, the Packers averaged better than five yards per play on first down. They peaked in 2011 (6.29) and got within spitting distance of that enviable average last year (6.03).

In 2014, five teams surpassed six yards a pop. In addition to Green Bay, Pittsburgh (6.42), Dallas (6.09), Baltimore (6.05) and Washington (6.03) were the class of the league.

This season, seven teams are above six. But the Packers are averaging only 4.50 yards per first-down play. That’s a drop of 1.53 from a year ago, nearly double the slide of any other team.

Green Bay ranks 31st in this category. Only the Browns (4.45) are worse off.

The Packers need to improve in this regard. Detroit is poised to register its first sweep of Green Bay since 1991.

Regular-season series

Overall: Green Bay leads 95-68-7.

At Ford Field: Packers lead 8-5.

Starting QBs

Packers: Aaron Rodgers (77-37 overall; 10-3 vs. Detroit).

Lions: Matthew Stafford (39-49; 3-7 vs. Green Bay).

Eric Goska is a Packers historian. Email him at

First downers

Since 1978, the six regular-season games in which the Lions held the Packers to less than 3 yards per play on first down.

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