No quarterback in the NFL was more productive on third down than Rodgers from 2008-09 when he led the league with a combined 119.4 passer rating, including an NFL-leading 28 touchdowns and an average of 9.6 yards per attempt with just five interceptions, according to STATS.
In 2009, Rodgers had one of the more efficient years on third down by any signal-caller over the prevous decade, posting a league-best-133.5 rating as he threw for more yards (1,710) and touchdowns (14) than anyone in the league. It was the best third-down rating in the NFL since Kurt Warner registered a 137.3 mark in 1999 with St. Louis, and it helped the Packers finish No. 3 in the league in the category at 47.0 percent.
After such a prolific first two years on third down, both Rodgers and the team got off to an inauspicious start this season. Through Week 8, the Packers ranked No. 26 in the league with a 35.1 conversion rate on third down, with Rodgers checking in at No. 21 among NFL quarterbacks with an uncharacteristic 65.7 rating (38-73, 6.2 yards per attempt, five touchdowns, five interceptions).
But what a difference a month can make. Over the past four games, Rodgers leads all NFL quarterbacks with a 149.7 third-down rating, connecting on 24-of-33 passes (72.7 percent) for five touchdowns and zero interceptions with an average of 11.4 yards per attempt. He completed six passes of 25-plus yards on third down in the last four contests compared to just two passes of that length in the first eight games.
That play has helped the Packers shoot up 20 spots in the league rankings as they now check in at No. 6 with a 42.7 conversion rate, with Rodgers now sitting at No. 5 (min. 75 attempts) among NFL quarterbacks with a 95.2 rating for the season.
“(Rodgers) has a unique set of skills that belong to him that have enabled him to do some great things,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “Then as we try to make the point all along, he can’t really do any of that stuff unless we get the protection that we need, unless he has confidence in his receivers to be able to adjust the route versus a specific coverage.
“I think he has some things that he possesses that make him certainly unique and very effective on third down with the velocity he has, the accuracy he has, the discipline, and then the scrambling ability. All of those things make him tough to handle when he is doing those things well.”
What has helped the Packers’ cause on third down of late has been their ability to stay out of long-yardage situations. Over the past four games, only 17 of Green Bay’s 56 third downs have been third-and-7 or more (30.4 percent) compared to 47 of 94 (50.0 percent) in the first eight contests. For the season, the Packers have gained 4 or more yards on first down 52.1 percent of the time (No. 3 in the NFL), up from last year’s 45.8 mark that ranked No. 17 in the league.
“If you look at last week (vs. San Francisco), and I don’t have the exact numbers, but I know we had a ton of third-and-1s, third-and-1-5s,” wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. “We had a lot of manageable situations because of the job we are doing on first and second down.
“If you are successful on first and second down and you don’t put yourself in those bad third-down situations, then your success level is absolutely going to be better. We have been executing better on third down the last couple of weeks particularly, and when you do that, you are going to run more plays and you are going to score more points. It’s all tied together.”
Since Robinson came to the Packers in 2006, he has been in charge of heading up the Packers’ third-down preparations each week. Robinson studies the opponent’s tendencies on third down and puts together the percentages of how often they bring pressure or play man or zone coverage, and that is used to help determine different route options the offense will use against those coverages. Toward the end of the week Robinson meets with Head Coach Mike McCarthy and other offensive coaches to make any tweaks to the third-down menu heading into the game.
After the team’s finest performance of the season, a 10-for-15 outing (66.7 percent) against Dallas in Week 9 that followed up a 13-of-41 stretch in the previous four games, McCarthy said the team had scaled back a bit on third down, focusing on the core things that the offense had excelled in over the years rather than adding to the package each week. Philbin estimated it has been only 10-15 percent less volume, but those increased practice reps on plays the offense was more familiar paid dividends over the past month.
“Play recognition is always something that defenses pride themselves in,” Robinson said. “Being able to match what you do and your formation and how you run a certain play, and then they see it on tape over and over again. So you want to try to give them something that maybe they haven’t seen from time to time.
“Sometimes that works in your favor and then other times you find that maybe you go back to some of the more basic stuff and try to execute it better. They know what’s coming? Good for them. They’ve still got to stop it.”
The tandem that has especially been hard to contain has been Rodgers and wide receiver Greg Jennings. According to STATS, Jennings has accounted for 217 of Rodgers’ 376 third-down passing yards in the past four games, posting that yardage on nine receptions (24.1 avg.). Jennings’ average of 54.3 yards per game on third down leads the league over that span, while his three touchdowns are tied for No. 1.
“They’ve got a good thing going,” Philbin said. “You hate to have a quarterback with a specific radar for one player, regardless of the scheme being utilized, but certainly it’s pretty evident that they are on the same page on some of the route adjustments that need to be made and the location of the ball.
“Greg doesn’t look surprised and Aaron doesn’t appear to be surprised when he is throwing Greg the ball because there is a trust, comfort level and confidence in one another. It’s been good. It’s certainly been beneficial to us as a unit.”
Additional coverage – Dec. 9