Packers go from penalty-prone to one of most-disciplined teams

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Packers coach Mike McCarthy would emphasize penalties in practice and talk about discipline, only to watch the yellow flags fly again the following Sunday.

More than three years' worth of Packers penalty problems hit an all-time low in Week 3 this season, a miserable 18-penalty performance in a loss at Chicago. Even recently, McCarthy said watching film of that game still makes him sick.

Since then, one of the NFL's most penalty-prone teams suddenly became one of its most disciplined.

Green Bay ended the regular season with 78 accepted penalties, tying for third-best in the league.

"It's all coaching," McCarthy jokingly said Wednesday. "Players had nothing to do with it."

Kidding aside, McCarthy said players knew something had to change.

"We've taken a different path this year," McCarthy said. "They've had a lot of adversity, and they've done really a great job of buckling down on the discipline penalties."

Every time the Packers lost a significant player to injury this season, their margin of error grew smaller. If they continued piling up penalties as they had in the past, they might be sitting at home right now instead of preparing to play Saturday night's NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Atlanta.

Now the bad news for the Packers: The team they're playing has even better discipline.

The Falcons committed just 58 penalties this season -- tops in the NFL by a significant margin, as the second-best Miami Dolphins had 72.

"We've emphasized special teams penalties because they're spot fouls, and even though they may only be a 5- or a 10-yard penalty, they're spot fouls and they're very penal," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "The other thing that we focus on is penalties in the fourth quarter of a game. Games in this league, 51 percent of them come down to eight points or less for the entire season (and) 25 percent come down to three points or less. I think it's very important that you don't have critical penalties in the fourth quarter."

McCarthy is impressed with the Falcons' team-wide discipline.

"It's just not one phase or two phases," he said. "They are a football team that really stays on schedule as far as what they try to do and how they do it. They are very fundamentally sound. I really appreciate the way they have been coached because it shows up on film."

And finally, McCarthy is seeing some of the same things from his own team.

Going into the 2010 season, Green Bay was among the NFL's five most frequently penalized teams for three consecutive seasons. The Packers were the league's most-penalized team last season with 118.

"We always tell the guys on offense, this is not a complicated game," Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "If you're going backwards, it's tough to score."

This season, the reductions came across the board:

» On defense, the Packers committed 15 fewer penalties in the 2010 regular season than they did in 2009. A major improvement came on face-mask penalties; Green Bay had eight defensive face-mask penalties in 2009 and just two this season.

» On offense, Green Bay had 13 fewer penalties than in 2009. The reduction came despite the Packers actually having one more false start on offense this season than they did last season.

» Green Bay's special teams had 12 fewer penalties than last season.

There was a huge reduction in special-teams holding calls. Green Bay had a whopping 14 holding calls on special teams in 2009, but just three this season.

"When we began back in the spring, that was something that we identified that we needed to change," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "We put the process in motion, and I think we've seen the results of it."

Green Bay's disciplined play continued in Sunday's playoff victory at Philadelphia, in which the Packers had just two penalties accepted against them.

Philbin said the improvement began in the offseason but really took hold after what he calls the "disaster night in Chicago," the 18-penalty outing in a Sept. 27 loss to the Bears.

"I think we made a bigger emphasis," Philbin said. "I know we did offensively. I know Coach did as a team. I think we probably made more of a point of it, and the guys responded."

Defensive back Jarrett Bush, one of Green Bay's key special teams players, said avoiding penalties is critical -- but the Packers can't be caught playing tentatively and worrying too much about the referees.

"We've just got to worry about playing football," Bush said. "Some calls can be questionable, some calls are accurate. We just worry about playing football, let the refs do the reffing and make the calls that they make."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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