Packers keep it simple to fix 3rd down problems
Hoping to fix his team's failures on third down through the first half of the season, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy has sacrificed complexity for the sake of familiarity.
McCarthy has gradually cut back the number of plays in his weekly game plans, focusing more on tried-and-true concepts the team has more experience running after watching too many promising drives fizzle out.
It seemed to work just fine in the last game, a 45-7 thrashing of Dallas on Nov. 7. After a bye week filled with rest and self-study, McCarthy hopes the offense will begin to look more like last year's defense-demoralizing unit that consistently converted third downs.
''It really comes down to concentrating on the concepts that we can hang our hat on,'' McCarthy said. ''Frankly (when) we went into the Dallas game, we just acknowledged that these are the three or four things we feel we do very well and that's the way we played the game.''
McCarthy said simplifying the offense involves switching just a handful of plays. It might not be a major adjustment, but Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said it is an effective one.
''I think when you lower the volume, and give the offense more plays that we have reps in and a lot of time invested in, you're going to run those plays a little bit better than newer plays,'' Rodgers said.
The Packers' offense was one of the league's best on third down last season, converting 47 percent of their chances - third-highest in the league, behind only Indianapolis and Miami. Rodgers was the NFL's highest-ranked passer on third downs in 2009.
But Green Bay's offense has been surprisingly average on third down this season, converting only 39.4 percent. That ties the Packers for a so-so 13th in the league. And that's including their sterling 10-for-15 conversion rate against Dallas.
Before facing the Cowboys, the Packers were converting only 35 percent of their third downs.
The Cowboys' uninspired defensive play in that game - an effort followed by the firing of coach Wade Phillips - had something to do with the Packers' newfound success. Beyond that, Rodgers said he threw the ball better than he had earlier in the season, allowing him and the receivers to start ''making some plays - finally.''
And Rodgers said running more familiar plays the team spent time on in the offseason certainly helped.
''Just kind of base plays, and we ran them better than they could stop us,'' he said.
McCarthy said he went into the season using a larger volume of plays than he normally would, hoping to find more ways to get all his talented offensive players involved. But as the Packers lost key players to injuries, including tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant, he had to act.
''I have been cutting throughout the year,'' McCarthy said. ''I think that we probably got a little too heavy in the beginning of the year, and just the fact that we were coming out of training camp (and) the norm is to go real low in the beginning of the year. But with the number of weapons that we had to start the season, we probably went a little higher in certain situations.''
Still, McCarthy said it won't be as easy to go back to basics for Sunday's game at Minnesota - an NFC North rival that knows the Packers as well as anyone.
''It's going to take a little different approach playing against a common opponent,'' McCarthy said. ''Playing Minnesota twice a year, it's a division game, there is a lot of offseason work that goes into each team studying each other. So there is a little bit more of a chess match the second time around you play your division opponents.''