Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers scrambles through the defense of the Chicago Bears during the first quarter of the game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., on Jan. 2, 2011. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
More than a few weeks this season have been like the movie “Groundhog Day” for the Green Bay Packers’ offense.
Their coaches spend a couple of days studying an opponent’s last four games and see a big dose of blitzing. They game plan for it. And then on game day, they don’t get blitzed much.
It hasn’t happened every week, but it’s happened enough to suggest that many NFL defensive coordinators are hesitant to throw a barrage of blitzes at quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“It says we’ve got some guys on our offense that they fear,” said Charles Woodson, the Packers’ Pro Bowl cornerback. “You’ve got a bunch of playmakers, it can be a long day. The quarterback’s as good as they come.”
That probably explains it. Teams often won’t blitz heavily against quarterbacks who quickly read and react to extra rushers, and are difficult to panic into dumb throws. That’s why, right or wrong, the Packers didn’t blitz Arizona’s Kurt Warner much last season in the playoffs.
A good scrambler can deter blitzing too, and get a defense to use a linebacker or safety to spy him instead. Rodgers, who has rushed for 356 yards this season, has seen his share of spies this year.
When the Packers played the Philadelphia Eagles in the regular-season opener, Eagles second-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott surprised them with a coverage-oriented approach.
McDermott ostensibly runs the same 4-3 scheme as his predecessor, the late Jim Johnson, who was one of the NFL’s most aggressive and creative blitzers during his 10 years running the Eagles’ defense. McDermott, though, blitzed Rodgers on only about 20 percent of the Packers’ offensive snaps in the opener, a 27-20 Packers win.
It worked fairly well, at least according to the statistics. Rodgers had his second-lowest passer rating of the season (73.1 points), fourth-lowest yardage total (188) and threw two of his 11 interceptions.
If Johnson still were running the Eagles’ defense, it would have been a good bet he’d blitz Rodgers thoroughly, though the hard part would be knowing which players were coming and when. Over the course of this season, McDermott has been less aggressive than last year and than Johnson ever was. But he studied under Johnson for 10 years and still has his mentor’s playbook. So the question for Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game is, will he open it up and go after Rodgers? Or will he play it safe and hope for the same results even though that first meeting was 17 weeks ago, a lifetime in the NFL?
Coach Mike McCarthy, at least publicly, suggested he’s expecting more blitzing.
“I think they’re No. 2 in the league (in opponent’s) quarterback rating vs. pressure,” McCarthy said. “I would definitely classify them as a pressure defense.”
The Eagles’ personnel backs that argument. McDermott has only one bona fide pass rusher, defensive end Trent Cole (10 sacks this season, 44 the last four years), but still finished a decent No. 10 in the NFL sacks percentage. McDermott probably needs to blitz some to get consistent pressure.
Maybe he’ll feel more confident sending extra rushers this time knowing the Packers won’t have a key playmaker, tight end Jermichael Finley, who played in the opener. On the other hand, he might fear Rodgers gashing the blitz for some game-turning plays or scrambling for first downs, and thus bring extra rushers at about the same rate as the opener.
That’s the route many teams, including Chicago and Atlanta, have taken this year. They often rushed only three or four men, and dropped seven or eight in coverage, or maybe used a man to mirror Rodgers instead of rushing or covering.
“You have to be patient,” Rodgers said of facing the coverage-oriented defenses. “You have to go through your progression, extend plays (by scrambling). If they are just going to bring three or four, I’m going to have to make some plays outside the pocket. We’ve done that at times. We’ll see what happens this week. They pressured Peyton (Manning of Indianapolis) a lot, they pressured Eli (Manning of the New York Giants), so we’ll see how they play us.”
With Rodgers’ success in the regular season since becoming a starter in 2008, he’s to the point where the NFL now will measure him more by his performances in these postseason games.
He’s played in only one playoff game, last year’s 51-45 loss at Arizona where he threw for 423 yards, four touchdowns and a 121.4 passer rating, but also lost the fumble on a sack in overtime that the Cardinals returned for the game-ending score.
“Aaron Rodgers needs to be himself,” McCarthy said. “He’s established a brand of football at the quarterback position that’s pretty damn good, and I’m glad he’s our quarterback. His numbers have been phenomenal for his first three years (as a starter), and he needs to go out and play to the standard he has set.”
Rodgers threw one interception against the Cardinals, in fact on the first play of the game when he scrambled and threw off target to receiver Jordy Nelson. Rodgers said that play resulted from blown assignments, not nerves.
“Guys lined up in the wrong spot, ran the wrong routes,” he said. “I moved around and thought my guy was coming back to me. He went to the left, I thought he was coming back.”
Rodgers said he’s a better player this season than last — he’s now started 47 games — but expressed mild disappointment in his play this year. His passer rating was similar to last season (101.2 points this year, 103.2 points in ’09) and he took fewer sacks (31 in 15 games, to 50 in 16 games in ’09), but he threw more interceptions (11 this year, seven in ’09).
“With the way I prepared and the way I took care of my body in the offseason, I guess I was looking for just a slightly bigger jump,” Rodgers said. “But my decision making was better, the opportunities to do more (audibles) at the line of scrimmage increased because of my preparation. I guess maybe I was looking for a slightly bigger jump. Maybe just (increase) the gaps between inconsistent plays.”