How Third Downs Sunk the Packers Defense

The Packers were downright terrible on defense in 2016. You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it. 

This truth has shaped every step the Packers have taken since their trouncing at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game, from their four defensive draft picks to their significant free agent investments on that side of the ball.

But it’s not enough to improve generally. The Packers have several specific steps toward a better defense, starting with addressing their biggest strategic shortfall: defending opponents on third down. 

You’ve probably heard somewhere about how bad the Packers were on third down defense, but at the most granular level, things really get startling. Starting from the shortest possible third down conversions, here’s how the Packers fared at getting defenses off the field in 2016.

3rd and 3 or less

Average Yards To Go: 1.84
Average Yards Given Up: 7.54

The Packers managed to get their opponents to third and short 54 times in 2016, which is good! Forcing a third down conversion in any down and distance is a good thing. Giving up more than four times as much as the average yards to go is bad. The Packers were very bad in third and short in 2016.

Worst Example: Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton Beat the Packers

Facing a third and two with just over two minutes to go, Andrew Luck found T.Y. Hilton for 27 yards to ice the Colts’ victory over the Packers. This play came during the depths of the Packers’ midseason slide and if you were looking for a single play represents the lowest point, this could be it.

3rd and 4 to 6

Average Yards To Go: 4.94
Average Yards Allowed: 7.07

A third and medium conversion is difficult, but not impossible. Depending on exactly how long your conversion is, a run might still be on the table, meaning your full playbook should be available. The Packers defense was more than happy to oblige any length of medium third down conversion, surrendering more than seven yards per play in those situations.

Worst Example: Matt Ryan’s clutch completion

Clinging to a late 24-19 lead, the Packers forced a 3rd-and-6 with just over 5:30 to go in the third quarter of their midseason matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. Much as he did all day, though, Ryan found a hole in the defense and exploited it, converting with an eleven yard completion to Terron Ward. Had the defense held, Atlanta may not have had enough possessions to keep up with a red hot Aaron Rodgers.

3rd and 7 to 9

Average Yards To Go: 8.13
Average Yards Allowed: 9.96

In their most egregious defensive failure of 2016, the Packers surrendered nearly 10 yards per play in third and long situations. Why bother playing defense on the first two downs if you’re just going to give up ten yards on the offense’s last gasp?

Worst example: Kirk Cousins breaks the Packers’ backs

Though the final score looks like a blowout, the Packers were very competitive throughout their prime time matchup with the Washington Redskins. With just under five minutes to go, Washington held just a 29-24 lead that seemed very vulnerable thanks to a suddenly semi-explosive Packers offense.

Kirk Cousins put an end to any comeback hopes, though, when he found Jamison Crowder for 53 yards on a third and seven play from his own 46. Robert Kelly punched in a one yard touchdown run on the next play, and following a Jared Cook fumble and another Washington score, the Packers’ quickly found themselves on the wrong end of a 42-24 thumping.