Aaron Rodgers threw an errant pass just before the 2-minute warning in the Green Bay Packersí win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday that had no bearing on the game, but it spoke volumes about the outcome.
It illustrated the difference between the Rodgers of today and the Rodgers of two or three years ago, and the difference between Rodgers and his counterpart, Jay Cutler.
The Packers were leading 14-7 and facing a 1st-and-20 situation at the Chicago 25-yard line. With the Bears in a zone coverage, wide receiver James Jones slanted across the middle. As the Bearsí defensive ends squeezed the pocket, Rodgers stepped up and threw a jump pass to Jones.
As it turned out, Rodgers and his receiver werenít on the same page, so Jones cut his route short and the pass fell incomplete in front of the safety. But the ball was precisely thrown, just over linebacker Lance Briggsí fingertips and just out of the reach of fellow linebacker Brian Urlacher. Had Jones kept running, the play might have gone for a first down and maybe even a touchdown.
On the field, Rodgers has the look of a tiger. In 2008, even 2009, Rodgers took the easy throws. On that pass to Jones, James Starks was wide open in the flat. Coaches preach all the time, ďDonít throw the ball late over the middle, especially against a Cover 2 zone.Ē So most quarterbacks are going to throw the ball to Starks, take the 10 yards and their coaches are going to say, ďThatís great.Ē What separates Rodgers is that he takes calculated chances, and he doesnít get burned by them.
Had Cutler thrown the same pass, itís probably a pick. But Rodgers is so accurate, either the receiver is going to catch it or nobody is going to catch it. This one didnít go his way and maybe he got some criticism in the meeting Monday for throwing it.
But he threw a laser even without his feet planted. More importantly, if a quarterback doesnít take chances, heís not going to make plays, and that play just shows how much confidence Rodgers has in himself. That confidence makes quarterbacks great.
TE Jermichael Finley
There was a lot of talk near cut-down time about the Packers keeping six wide receivers, but they essentially have six with Finley. They line him up everywhere to put pressure on defenses. He catches the ball all over the place, not just up the seam.
Teams canít match up against him. He had seven catches; he probably could have had 15. Who knows? If you look around the league, the big, hybrid tight end has become pretty sexy. The two guys in New England are lining up all over. Jimmy Graham in New Orleans. Vernon Davis.
Itís not so much that teams canít find someone to run with them. But you see defenders break up passes to wide receivers. They knock the ball away; they make big hits. You saw Johnny Knox of the Bears drop that ball when he peeked too soon.
When youíre throwing to someone 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, a defensive back really has to lay a lick on the receiver to break it up. So a quarterback has a bigger window with a big, strong body like that.
Then you combine Finley with Greg Jennings and that creates even more matchup problems. Jennings runs great routes, especially on quick slants and the skinny post. So teams have to have a safety eyeballing him, as well as Finley. That creates opportunities for others to make big plays.
RB Ryan Grant
Thatís another thing having Finley and Jennings does. By forcing teams to play with two safeties over the top, it gives the Packersí additional running space. The running backs carried 28 times, and the Bears had more than seven defenders in the box on only six of them, including two clock-killing plays at the end.
When a team is running against a 4-3 defense without a safety lining up or sneaking into the box, it gives them angles and helps the offensive line. Grant had huge holes.
But youíd still like to see him make someone miss. There was a play early in the second quarter where he had the whole side of the field, and he didnít have the wheels to get the edge on the cornerback. That said, Starks maybe didnít get the same blocking, but he was running against the same alignments and averaged less than a yard a carry to Grantís 5.4.
RT Marshall Newhouse
Considering he hasnít played since the preseason and heís not getting much work in pads in practice, he was solid. He played too high on occasion and on some of the combo blocks in the Packersí zone scheme, he didnít step out and get the linebacker. But that should come with playing time.
LB Clay Matthews
He doesnít have six sacks after three games as he did last year, but heís so special and what he does in the running game gets overlooked.
Twice early in the game, the Bears tried their old bread-and-butter off-tackle power play with a guard pulling and looking for the outside linebacker. Matthews ran right by the guard and made super plays. If any of the Packersí other outside linebackers run by that block, the back probably breaks a big play.
Matthews is a big part of why the Packersí run defense is so special. Maybe Erik Walden canít make those plays, but heís consistently solid setting the edge on the other side.