Green Bay Packers

How Critical Were Green Bay’s Third-Down Struggles?

Photo Credit: Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Plenty of different statistics explain why the Green Bay Packers fell off from three 13-win seasons over the last three years to an underwhelming 8-9 this past season. Still, the team’s inefficiencies on third down were particularly devastating. Despite having some of the most manageable third downs in the league, the Packers ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in conversion rate.

Part of the allure of being a run-first football team is the ability to set the offense up in third-and-manageable situations. It’s a bit arbitrary, but when placed within the context of the rest of the league, Green Bay ranked among the league’s best in that metric.

The Packers faced 199 third downs in which they were looking for a chance to convert. On average, they had 6.2 yards between the line of scrimmage and the first down marker. There are five teams tied at that 6.2 number (and Pro Football Reference doesn’t use any more decimals), but there are no teams with less than that figure, putting the Packers among the league leaders.

The company within that grouping — the Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Chargers, and New Orleans Saints, along with the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills just on the outside looking in at 6.3 — lends some credence to the notion that there are at least competent offenses leading this statistic. The worst teams in the league average right around 7.7 to 7.8 yards to go on third down; the New York Jets and Denver Broncos are right near the bottom here, to no surprise. It might not seem like 1.5 yards means a ton, but over the course of 200-plus third downs, it proves to be a sizeable gap.

So, the Packers not having far to go to pick up a first down should hypothetically mean it’s easier to convert, right? Well, you’d be wrong with this year’s Green Bay offense. The Packers converted on third down at a paltry rate of 39.5%, good for 17th in the league. This stat in particular doesn’t lie. The top six here are Buffalo (49.8%), Kansas City (48.8%), Philadelphia (47.5%), Cincinnati (47.2%), San Francisco (45.8%), and Dallas (45.2). What do those six teams have in common? Well, they were all playing in the Divisional round this past weekend, and all four teams playing in the conference championships just so happen to be good at converting third downs.

The Packers were substantially better in 2021 at converting third downs, when they did so at a clip of 43.5%, good for ninth in the league. But Green Bay’s offense was really cooking in 2020, converting at nearly 51%, which was the best in the league by a substantial margin.

The conversions this season were there for the taking. On average, the Packers were set up better than anyone to convert the all-important third down. Yet, the offense showed substantial regression to the point that they fell into the bottom half of the league in actually being able to do so. Why couldn’t Green Bay convert?

The most obvious answer, as is for just about any question regarding the Packers this season, is the loss of Davante Adams. In 2020, Adams had 29 receptions on third down and upped that to 31 a season ago for an average of 30 over the past two seasons — the second-most per player in the league each season. Robert Tonyan had 12 in 2020, and Randall Cobb had 12 in 2021. That vacuum within the offense allowed Allen Lazard to step and be a primary target on third down, but he hauled in only 18 receptions on third down, well off Adams’ pace.

There are certainly more reasons — play selection, execution, etc. — but weakened personnel really does make a difference. The fact that Green Bay, statistically, should have been among the league leaders in conversion rate but wasn’t might not fully qualify for causation as opposed to just correlation with a five-win drop-off from last year to this, but it certainly didn’t help.

Rock bottom for the Packers on third down this season certainly came in the 23-21 loss to the Washington Commanders in October. Green Bay converted exactly 0% of their third (and fourth) down opportunities, going 0 for 7. The Packers scored three touchdowns but took advantage of a short field thanks to a (rare) good punt return by Amari Rodgers on the first, scored on a pick-six by De’Vondre Campbell on the second, and converted via penalty twice on the third touchdown drive. The inability to generate offense led to Green Bay’s third straight of five consecutive losses in a season-killing month.

Good offenses convert on third down, sustain drives, and score points. Green Bay gave itself the opportunity to do all three of those things early in a set of downs, but the lack of ability to do anything with that early-down success played a big part as to why Packers fans have been watching the playoffs from their couches.

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