The Truth About Green Bay’s Third-And-Long Defense

Contrary to popular thinking, third-and-long has been one of the strong suits of Mike Pettine’s crew. Here's the scoop.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers’ defense has some problems.

Its third-and-long defense, contrary to popular thinking, isn’t among them.

In fact, third-and-long has been one of the strong suits of Mike Pettine’s crew.

Coaches generally define third-and-long as a third-down play requiring 8-plus yards. Under that traditional definition, Green Bay ranks seventh with an opponent conversion rate of 19.0 percent. Broadening third-and-long to 10-plus yards, the Packers are tied for second with an opponent conversion rate of just 10.7 percent. Opponents are 3-of-28 in that scenario.

A recency bias shows up in Green Bay’s supposed struggles. In a 34-31 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, Indy quarterback Philip Rivers completed 4-of-6 passes for 46 yards on third downs of 10-plus yards. Those completions resulted directly in one first down. That came on a third-and-12 in the first quarter. T.Y. Hilton caught the ball at 8 yards and powered ahead for the first down.

Indirectly, the Colts converted on two other occasions.

Late in the game, the Colts faced a third-and-19. Rivers threw a screen to running back Jordan Wilkins, whose 15-yard gain included 20 yards after the catch. That set up a fourth-and-4, which the Colts converted. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The defense stiffened and forced a punt, and Green Bay drove down the field to kick the tying field goal.

With about 5 minutes left in the third quarter, the Colts faced a third-and-10. Rivers threw it to running back Jonathan Taylor for a gain of 9 to make it fourth-and-1. The Colts converted on a 4-yard run by backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett. That drive culminated with a touchdown that pulled Indy within 28-25.

So, officially, Green Bay won on five of the six third downs that required 10-plus yards. In reality, the Packers won three and the Colts won three – obviously not good enough.

“That’s something that we definitely talked about today, as a matter of fact, just in terms of if you’re going to play soft, boy, your underneath coverage, it can’t be beyond the sticks, and that’s exactly what happened on just a few of those situations,” coach Matt LaFleur said on Monday. “We have got to shore that up and make sure that we don’t give up those 5-yard unders that go for a conversion. That just can’t happen.”

Before the conversion to Hilton, the Packers won 19 consecutive plays of third-and-10-plus dating to a second-quarter conversion by Saints running back Alvin Kamara in Week 3.