Packers Defense Much Improved on Third Downs
In June we did an exhaustive breakdown of the Packers' third down defense last season.
In short, the Packers were an absolute train wreck on the money downs last year, giving up a staggering amount of yards in virtually every third down situation.
On third downs where opponents had to pick up between four and six yards, for example, the Packers gave up 7.07 yards on average. Not great!
But so far this season, things are much, much better. According to Pro Football Reference, the Packers are surrendering much fewer yards on third down plays than they did last year, and offenses are having a hard time staying on the field as a result.
Here's how the numbers break down by down and distance in terms of yards needed to go and yards surrendered.
How are they doing it?
The first and best way the Packers are preventing third down conversions is with a more consistent pass rush. As we mentioned just two paragraphs ago, the Packers defense was atrocious when opponents had between four and six yards to go on third downs last year.
This year, the Packers are giving up just 3.8 yards on average on plays from that down and distance, and that's in large part because of a consistent pass rush. So far this season, opponents have lined up on eight plays needing four to six yards on third downs, and the Packers have recorded sacks on two of those plays.
It's not just sacks, though. Getting to the quarterback in general has been a big part of the Packers' success on third downs, as on this third down play in Week 1.
Russell Wilson has Tyler Lockett open for a first down (and likely a touchdown) but he can't make the throw because Mike Daniels is draped all over him. That was a rare sight last year, but it's been much more common this season, even with Daniels out of the lineup for most of the last three games.
A second reason is more anecdotal, but I think it passes muster. The Packers have dramatically improved the quality of their secondary, and as a result they've been able to make more plays that make life difficult for opposing offenses.
This week on Blue 58, we touched briefly on the Packers' maddening inability to get their hands on the ball consistently on defense. That's broadly true, but I think it's interesting that five of the team's 14 total pass breakups on the season have come on third down, including four on third downs where opposing teams had to go seven yards or more.
To me, this is a direct result of the quality of the player the Packers are putting on the field in the secondary. This year, it's not Ladarius Gunter covering receivers on the boundary in clutch situations, it's Davon House or Kevin King or even Josh Hawkins. It's not a linebacker covering receivers in the slot, it's Morgan Burnett. It's not Jake Ryan or Blake Martinez trying to fill in as a dime linebacker, it's Josh Jones.
Though speed is not a proxy for talent, general athleticism never hurts, and putting players in positions where they can use their athletic gifts in the best possible way is a great way to get started on improving your defense.
Is the turnaround sustainable?
There are reasons both for concern and for optimism going forward. Obviously, four games does not a season make, and at this point last year the defense was bad but still far from the dumpster fire it would become. The Packers have really only faced one offense that would be considered a major threat, and it's very possible that things will get worse for the Packers on third downs from here on out.
That said, the Packers have also been without their best defensive player for three games and the young players who have stepped up big so far are likely only going to improve. As good as the Packers have been on third downs so far, it's possible they could get even better as the season goes on.
At any rate, to this point in the season, the Packers have made a remarkable turnaround on third downs. Hopefully, they're just getting started.