Packing the Stats: First Down Balancing Act All Green Bay Packers All the Time

Packing the StatsThere has been some frustration among Green Bay Packers fans lately about the run/pass ratio from the offense on first downs. During the lukewarm win against the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday, Mike McCarthy seemed to consistently call running plays on first down. Frustration with the predictability of the calls started to seep into the ever-watchful fans, and it became just another part of the team’s so-called “moral loss.”

Now, I have been slowly tracking a good number of statistics during the past eight weeks, most of which I haven’t even gotten into analyzing. One thing I do after each game is log every offensive play: the down, distance, yardage gained, how it was gained, who gained it, and the outcome. From there, I can gather a whole bunch of raw statistical information, a lot of which isn’t available on the popular NFL statistical websites.

One thing it has allowed me to track is the run/pass ratios on a down-by-down basis, which I have presented below. Now, in the following data, I have not accounted for plays in which penalties have been accepted, since a good number of times they are pre-snap penalties. This adds a little bit of error to the numbers, but it should be nothing of significance.

The first thing I want to show you is the total number of called runs and passes, as sorted by down and distance (click the image to enlarge):


2012 Run/Pass Ratios by Down and Distance
2012 Run/Pass Ratios by Down and Distance


If there was any doubt about which team we are analyzing, they are put to rest when we see just how much the offense is passing the ball. It’s no secret that Mike McCarthy trusts the arm of Aaron Rodgers more than his running game – and so he should. It’s their biggest and most reliable weapon.

However, there are some significant trends in the data. First and foremost, Mike McCarthy is actually pretty “balanced” when it comes to calling runs on first downs. In fact, the offense has passed the ball a few more times overall than they have run it in such situations.

The real “imbalances” come in later downs, as the offense tends to throw it more as the down increases. Running plays are only called 11.7% of the time on third downs, and if you take out the third-and-short distances, it drops to a measly 4.6%.

This, of course, makes complete sense. We already noted the obvious fact that the Packers’ strength is in their passing game, so they’d want to call plays that have a higher chance of success. Even in short yardage situations, passing the ball gives Green Bay a better chance of converting than if they were to run it.

Let’s take a look now at some of the weekly run/pass totals from individual games:


2012 Run/Pass Ratios by Weekly Opponent
2012 Run/Pass Ratios by Weekly Opponent


Notice something about the Jacksonville game? Yeah, a perfect 50-50 split on first down.

Now, to be fair, two of those passing plays on first down against Jacksonville were in the red zone from the 4-6 yard range. Still, a 13-11 split of runs to passes isn’t a gigantic imbalance that we should be fretting over.

Frankly, Mike McCarthy should be praised for the balance he’s fought to achieve since the beginning of the season. He was extremely pass-heavy on first down against the 49ers, and with the exception of Chicago, he didn’t start to become consistently balanced until the past four games. (What is remarkable, as well, is the fact that no running plays were ran on second and third down against San Francisco.)

Another interesting fact is that the Packers lost three of the top four games in total pass ratio: San Francisco (85.0%), Seattle (71.6%), and Indianapolis (69.0%). The exception was New Orleans (69.4%), though we all know how close that one was.

For our normal disclaimers, we do have to note that the opponent and even the in-game adjustments account for the types of calls made by Mike McCarthy. They will develop a game plan based on the opposing defense, and if they feel the running game will have more success, then they might rely on it more. We also can’t forget how field position affects strategy, as well as the audibles called by Aaron Rodgers at the line based on his pre-snap judgments.

What we really have to remember is that our memories can deceive us. Negative things will stand out more often than the positives, especially in a loss or in a game where the team seemed to underperform. With the running game struggling like it did, it’s no wonder fans became frustrated with the number of times they were handing it to Alex Green, and that probably affected our assessment of McCarthy’s play calling.

Truth be told, I actually felt like they were running a lot on first down, too. Then again, maybe it’s just that we’re so used to them passing so much that we see increased rushing attempts as more than what they are. Whatever the case, the statistics should at least help us calm our nerves about McCarthy’s play calling balance on first down.


Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski


17 thoughts on “Packing the Stats: First Down Balancing Act

  1. Wonderful statistical work chad. Very impressive and I must say I thought they were running much, much more on 1st down.

    With Rodgers being Player of Month, Hayward being D Rookie of the Month and house getting ST player of week – maybe, just maybe we all need to take a deep breath and relax.

    1. Any team will struggle in this league when their top 2 receivers and top RB are missing on offense and their defense is missing 3 starters and another 2 backups/heavy contributors. People need to relax. All that matters is getting into the bye at 6-3. Doesn’t matter how – short of injuries – or who is active, just gotta get that win!

  2. These stats show up all sorts of things and different things may jump out to different people.

    What I see most is an unhealthy pass run ratio on third down. When you are almost 9-1 pass/run, then the opposing defense will have gameplanned that and will sell out on the pass and tee off on the QB blitzing too. Even on 3rd down and 3 or less yards needed, it is a 3 to 1 pass/run ratio.

    There is the indictment of our run game right there.

    1. I think the most telling aspect is on 3rd-and-short. Most teams will be passing the majority of the time beyond that distance, but you’re right… It’s very indicative of the Packers run game as much as it is of their passing game. When you can’t get 3+ yards consistently on early downs, what chance do you have when the line is stacked?

      The one counterpoint is that the passing game still allows for a lot of different route combinations and attack points. That said, teams aren’t going to bite too much on a play action on third down.

      1. it seems like McCarthy/Rodgers get impatient, since they continually face schemes geared to stop the pass. 3rd and short is one of the few instances whether they presumably get a little more favorably coverage since most defenses would expect a run in this situation. therefore Rodgers/MM seem to seize these precious few opportunities to try to burn the defense in the passing game, often with deep throws.

        I also think that in order to convert on a 3rd and short run, the highest percentage run is probably one up the middle (shortest way from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’), yet that’s where we’re weakest with saturday (poor run blocker)in the middle. we used to be good and getting the 1st on 3rd & short with a gash up the middle behind studs wells & sitton who were both top 10 at their position. last year, we had both of them plus a drastically improved bulaga all side-by-side letting us run the middle or the right side when we needed to. now we downgraded from one of the best blocking centers in wells to one of the worst (saturday’s run-blocking has taken a nose-dive). sitton has dropped a bit and bulaga is in a slump. we no longer hang side-by-side studs anywhere to clear a path

        1. That said, if they’re going to pass on 3rd & short, I wish they’d just go for the first down and keep moving the chains instead of what seems like always going for the low probability of completion deep throw. Especially in games where the score is close and the best thing you can do is keep the other team’s offense off the field.

    1. Tell me about it. I even went back and checked the gamebook to see if my data was accurate. There were a number of scrambles by Rodgers on 2nd and 3rd down, but never a called running play.

  3. I love the use of “Frankly” in that paragraph. Haha one of McCarthy’s favorite words. Great analysis

  4. what does achieving balance gain us if Jacksonville that most teams can run through can stuff us with just six in the box? yes, we should be able to be able to average 4 yards per carry against that kind of D, but we get about 2.5. we do not run screens as well as we used to either. but anyway, hats off to chad and this blog for consistently being the most thoughtful one around on the packers.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, wim.

      At the very least, balance gains the offense some unpredictability and a way to keep the defensive front “honest.” In other words, they just can’t keep rushing the passer down after down and disregard their gap control.

      You are right, though, that the quality of the running game was not up to par against Jacksonville, but I think that’s a bit of a separate issue.

  5. Good job, Thanks for the data. This information confirms 2 things for me.

    A) The Pack has to develop a better running game. The theory that the Packers really don’t need one is old news. It’s time for TT to land a long term Stud at RB. Also need a couple of young road graders. A Center is a must. Unfortunately, TT is always picking in the last 4th of the round and he has high profile players to Sign for next year, so his cap money will be tight.

    B) IT shows how special Rodgers is to generate the offensive production he has with out a strong running game. He is such a rare talent.

  6. To me the most alarming stat of that analysis was the percentage of runs on second down for the season. Personally I would like to see more passes on first down and more runs on second down. Those are some really strong tendencies that hopefully MM and Clements take notice of. Stack the box on first down and bail out and second and third. I do not mind the packers passing it 65% of the time, but I would like the rushes to be spit more evenly on first and second downs.

  7. This data suggests that when playing against good pass rushing Ds, running the ball at least 40% of the time ihelps win the ball game. 30-35% is probably ok for bad D’s.

  8. Here’s what I think: Most teams use the run to keep the defense honest and to set up the pass. What USED to work for the Packers was using the short pass in the same way. Slants, screens, shovels. Then just when the corners and LB’s are playing tight, WHAM! Jordy/Greg/Donald for 38 yards and a TD! There doesn’t seem to be the same patience lately, always looking too far down field. Now don’t you wish I was the coach??

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