GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers’ no-huddle offense is awesome. Except when it isn’t.
And that was the problem last Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers: As good as it got with Aaron Rodgers & Co. – four touchdown drives of 80, 62, 69 and 76 yards – the offense also had a whopping five series go three-and-out. Add two turnovers – an Eddie Lacy fumble in the second quarter on the second snap of that series, and a Rodgers interception off the bobbling hands of tight end Jermichael Finley – and the Packers were a wild ride of success and abject failure against the 49ers.
That’s a trend they can’t afford to continue this Sunday against the Washington Redskins at Lambeau Field.
“Those are great drives. But you just can't have the inconsistency of the three-and-outs,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com earlier this week. “That just kills your momentum and puts your defense right back on the field.”
Indeed, the Packers had the ball for 17 fewer minutes than the 49ers, finishing with 21 minutes, 25 seconds of possession. While the defense certain had its own issues against quarterback Colin Kaepernick and wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was named NFC offensive player of the week Wednesday for his 208-yard effort, the offense’s inability to string together a first down or two on its non-scoring drives didn’t help.
“It was kind of feast or famine,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “We have to be more consistent, especially against a good defense. Ideally you’d like to move the ball every time you have it. That’s a little unrealistic, but you definitely want to minimize the number of 3-and-outs you have.
”You’re not just going to go up and down the field on a good defense, though at times we did that. But it’s hard to do that consistently. Our goal each time we get the ball is to get a solid drive and get points and sometimes we accomplish that, and sometimes we don’t.”
Added right tackle Don Barclay: “You might not score on a drive, but if you get two or three first downs, it changes field position, kind of wears out the defense. That’s a big thing we’ve got to improve on.”
The Redskins saw firsthand what can happen when a no-huddle offense gets humming. On Monday night, the Philadelphia Eagles, running the innovative offense new head coach Chip Kelly ran at the University of Oregon, ran 53 plays in the first half and rang up 322 yards and 21 first downs while building a 26-7 halftime lead.
“If you’re able to get more plays and move the football it’s a big plus,” Washington coach Mike Shanahan said in his conference call with Wisconsin reporters Wednesday. “If you’re not, if you’re in a high tempo offense and all of a sudden you’re not getting first downs, it could put you in quite a hole quickly.”
That’s what happened to the Eagles in the second half, when they ran only 24 plays, gained only 121 yards and five first downs and held on for a 33-27 victory.
While Rodgers joked that the Eagles’ tempo would be hard even for the Packers to match – “I'm not sure if our guys can handle 50 plays at this point,” Rodgers said with a chuckle, “(but) we'd like the think at some point maybe we could” – the Packers also will huddle when necessary. Their production isn’t wholly dependent on tempo, but it is vital.
“That what we want to do. That’s we were able to do at San Fran when we got the first downs,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “But when you go three and out, it’s obviously hard on the defense and wears them down. We want to get that first first down and get the tempo going and continue to make plays, stay ahead of the chains. Coach (Mike McCarthy) gets in a rhythm calling the plays and we get in a rhythm running them and the flow of the offense is a lot better.”
On the Packers’ first three-and-out series on the opening possession of the game in San Francisco, outside linebacker Aldon Smith beat rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari for an 8-yard sack of Rodgers.
The Packers managed to get one first down on the next drive, then had their first scoring drive on the ensuing possession. On that 80-yard sprint, Rodgers hit Randall Cobb for 13 yards and Nelson for 31 on the first two plays, moving the ball from the Green Bay 20-yard line to the San Francisco 36.
After Lacy’s fumble and the 49ers’ touchdown that came off it, the Packers started the next drive at their 4-yard line and went three-and-out, although they did so without a negative-yardage play. They started with a Rodgers incompletion to Nelson on first down and failed on a third-and-2 when Rodgers threw incomplete to James Jones.
Their opening possession of the second half also went three-and-out without a negative play, although Lacy was stuffed for no gain on first down and a 2-yard gain on a second-down run.
The Packers’ other two three-and-out series came in the fourth quarter. The first, at the beginning of the quarter, came after Rodgers was sacked for a 3-yard loss on second-and-7.
The second, which came after the Packers took a 28-24 lead and the defense gave it back in 2 minutes 39 seconds as the 49ers went up 31-28, the Packers didn’t have a negative play but began at their own 9-yard line after kick returner Jeremy Ross was taken down inside the 10.
That drive began with an incompletion to Cobb, followed by a 7-yard scramble by Rodgers. But Rodgers and Nelson couldn’t connect on third-and-3, and Tim Masthay had to punt it away with 4:52 to go.
So of the five three-and-outs, two included a negative-yardage play and two started inside the Packers’ 10-yard line.
“That’s where we were critical of ourselves,” McCarthy said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the huddle, breaking huddle, or if you’re at the line calling plays, (if) you break down the three and outs, the second-and-longs, being backed up – other things apply to that. The negative plays (are) really the setback. It disrupts your rhythm and keeps you off your time clock. We talk about playing on time each and every time, staying in favorable down and distances, and that was a big part of our demise in the three-and-out series.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.