Stopping the Detroit Lions on third down was a huge issue for the Green Bay Packers in their first matchup this season. If the Packers hope to win the NFC North on Sunday they are going to need to do much, much better defensively on third downs than they did in that first matchup.
As a fan it is very frustrating to watch your team do well defensively on first and second down only to not force fourth down. It seems to come in streaks and when it is happening, it is very noticeable and you start to think your team can never get off the field. The question is, has that been a trend this year? To find out, I took a look at how the Packers perform on third down conversion percentage compared to some of their previous seasons to give you an idea of how they are doing.
That week 3 game against the Lions did not go well for the Packers, obviously, resulting in a 17-7 loss. At first glance it doesn’t seem too bad for the Packers’ defense, after all they only allowed 17 points on the road to a team that averages scoring 25 points per game at home. However taking a closer look at it shows that the Packers really struggled on defense because they could not get off the field.
The Lions won the time of possession battle 38 minutes to 22 minutes and converted 74 percent of their 3rd down opportunities (14 of 19). Unfortunately it gets even uglier than that because the Packers held the Lions on their first four third down opportunities. Meaning the Lions converted on 12 of their last 13 chances on 3rd down including not being stopped a single time on third down in the second half.
Looking at the overall season stats shows that the Lions game was more of a blip on the radar than a trend for the Packers. Looking at this season and the previous four seasons for the Packers, this season does look better than most in terms of the defense being able to get off the field on third down and offensively staying on the field by converting on third down.
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In terms of being able to get off the field on third down, the Packers defense is having its best season since the Super Bowl year of 2010. In a way the ranks look fairly similar to 2010 because this year Packers are pretty good at home in terms of getting off the field and not good but not horrible on the road, 2010 saw the inverse of that where the Packers’ defense was able to get off the field at a high rate on the road and not great but not horrible at home.
It is interesting to note that when the Packers made their run to the Super Bowl, they had to do it all on the road, where on third down they statistically played much better. This weekend with a win against Detroit the Packers could potentially be playing all their playoff games at home, where on third down they statistically play much better.
The offense is great at converting on third downs this year and pretty much every year whether it is at home or on the road. This year the Packers are a top 10 team at home and on the road offensively in terms of third down conversion rate. The worst ranking they have been in five years at home or on the road is a mediocre 19th, which was at home last year where the Packers only had Aaron Rodgers for three games. There’s nothing to worry about with the Packers offense in terms of third down success rate. For that reason I have decided to focus more on the defense for this piece.
I should note that for the next table that third down conversion percentages from year-to-year are not great for comparing in terms of making one-to-one conclusions. For instance this season the Packers are allowing teams to convert on 40.17 percent of their third down chances, good for 17th in the NFL. In 2010 however that would have been 24th in the NFL. There has been a slow moving trend each year in recent years where offenses are slowly converting more and more often on third down. While you may not be able to make direct one-to-one comparisons you can use the stats to make some general conclusions from them as well as more importantly using them to compare how often the Packers allow teams to pick up a first down for each down and in particular for each distance on third downs.
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When looking at the tables above I like to really zone in on 2014, 2011, and 2010. The reason for that is we know the Packers not only had a good defense in 2010 but it was good enough to win them the Super Bowl. In 2011 the defense was pretty bad, I don’t think it was as historically bad as people would have you believe that year, but bad nonetheless. 2011 gives a nice perspective to what the Packers defense looked like on third downs on one of their worst seasons defensively. Then throw in 2012 and 2013 just for comparisons sake because more data points are rarely a bad thing.
From the charts above you can see the overall third down conversion rate allowed by the defense hasn’t fluctuated much since 2011, hovering right around 40 percent each season. The outlier in there and in all the tables above is the 2010 season. The Packers were very good at getting off the field in 2010 and getting the ball in the offense’s hands. A key for any team to have success.
Looking at the percentage of times the Packers’ defense allows an opponent to move the sticks on first down, there doesn’t appear to be much correlation from year-to-year. The teams seem to fluctuate each year from good to bad, with this year being a good year with the Packers only giving up a first down on one in every five first down plays.
2011, 2013, and 2014 all saw the Packers give up a first down on 35 percent of second down plays whereas 2010 was a great 27.4 percent. It cannot be understated how much better the 2010 defense was as a whole than previous teams the Packers have had in recent years and I do not think it is a coincidence that it was the year they won the Super Bowl.
The smaller sample sizes for fourth down seems be the reason for why the defense is all over the map between years in terms of fourth down conversion percentage allowed. The last two seasons have seen a lot less attempts at going for it on fourth and long against the Packers, which is why the fourth down percentage looks the way it does. It is obviously easier to convert fourth and two than fourth and twelve.
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Looking strictly at the third down and distance percentages you see that this season has been fairly unremarkable, for better or for worse, compared to the previous four seasons. The only area that stands out is how much better the Packers have been at not giving up the big play on third and ten or longer. That doesn’t mean it is not important, third and ten can be very deflating to give up but seeing dominant percentages like in 2010 in all areas would be nice.
The defense actually looks very similar to the poor defensive year of 2011 on third down plays of six yards or less. The difference being how much better they have been on third down plays of seven yards or longer this season compared to 2011.
The biggest take for me out of looking at third down percentage conversion rates is that this season has been better than 2011-2013, however they are not nearly as good as they were in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl. There is no third down distance this season that is overtly terrible compared to the previous four seasons and they have been much better on third and long.
Assuming third down conversion rate is an important stat and the Packers continue their play during the season into the playoffs, is good enough going to be good enough?
I think a large part of that comes into play with the run defense and how poor they have been on the road. After all, the Packers are a top ten team in the NFL at home in getting off the field on third down, they are also a top ten run defense at home. Conversely they are a bottom ten team in the NFL at getting off the field on third down on the road, they are also a bottom ten team in run defense on the road this year.
The Packers have shown this year that if they can hold teams to third and long, they have done a good job at not giving up the big conversion to keep drives alive. The run defense playing their part at home against Detroit on Sunday will be key not just on third down but on first and second to setup those third and long plays. If the Packers can force Detroit to abandon the run early on drives, their chances for success have to go up.
Detroit seemingly more than any other team over the last couple years seems to want to play the ball control game and over-emphasize the run against the Packers. They have been successful at limiting possessions for the Packers offense in the past by sustaining long drives and milking the clock. Put the ball in the hands of Stafford on third down and take your chances. After all, unbelievably Stafford has never beaten a team above .500 on the road, lets keep that streak going on Sunday and get a bye and at least one home game in the playoffs.
Mike Reuter lives in the Twin Cities and is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas. He is a mobile tech enthusiast, a 19 year Gopher Football season ticket holder and a huge Packers fan. Mike is a writer with AllGreenBayPackers.com and you can follow him on twitter at @uofmike.