Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws a touchdown pass to James Jones during the second quarter of Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams at Lambeau Field. / Dan Powers/Gannett Wisconsin Media
First, there was the back-shoulder fade. Now, there’s the play-action bootleg.
The Green Bay Packers keep adding to their offensive arsenal.
For the third time this season, they’ve sucked in an opponent who overplayed the run and burned them deep for an easy touchdown.
This time, in Sunday’s 24-3 win over the St. Louis Rams at Lambeau Field, the Packers ran it with a twist. Instead of rolling Rodgers to his right, this time coach Mike McCarthy increased the degree of difficulty and called the rare bootleg to the left, forcing quarterback Aaron Rodgers to throw across his body to the backside of the play.
Further proving there doesn’t appear to be a throw he can’t make, Rodgers delivered a strike to James Jones on a backside post for a 35-yard touchdown with 13:53 left in the second quarter.
It was a route concept and a throw that Rodgers said he hasn’t made but once or twice in his career, the last time to the forgotten Rod Gardner in a 2006 training camp practice, but it’s the same basic play-action bootleg that has resulted in a trio of big plays already this season.
“It’s a thing where if you sell it good enough, the defense is going to chase the running back, and you roll out the other way with the quarterback,” Packers left guard T.J. Lang said. “We do a nice job with it. It’s one of the best plays we’ve got. It’s one of those play calls where you’re always expecting it to be a big play for us.”
It was in Week 2 at Carolina. The Panthers jumped the run, Rodgers rolled to his right and fired a strike to Greg Jennings for a 49-yard touchdown. Two weeks later against Denver, Rodgers connected with Jordy Nelson on nearly the identical play for a 50-yard touchdown pass. In both cases, the Packers used a two-back personnel grouping and gave Rodgers maximum protection. On the one to Jennings, he was the only receiver on the field.
Both of those were shot plays. The one against the Rams was an option with a possible throw to tight end Tom Crabtree running a shallow cross.
“(It was) just play-action looking for a guy in the flat first,” Rodgers said. “James kind of came open, got in my vision. Really thrown that maybe one time in six years. … So I was happy to hit that. It was tough in the wind, but he got open. Nice body catch.”
The key to pulling it off is the run fake. If the defense doesn’t respect the run, then the play is probably doomed. On Sunday, McCarthy timed his call perfectly. One play earlier, running back James Starks gashed the Rams for 15 yards on a fourth-and-1, so he had St. Louis’ defense thinking run.
“The key is making sure we’re staying low and really selling the run and sucking those guys up,” Lang said. “We know that when it’s called it’s possibly going to be a huge play, so we want to make sure we’re on point and on target with everything, selling the run and sucking those safeties up and letting those guys break loose in the secondary. It’s been a good play for us.”
While Starks and the right side of the offensive line all gave the appearance of a run to the right, Lang, left tackle Marshall Newhouse and tight end Jermichael Finley slid to the left with Rodgers, giving him protection.
“It’s just an excellent read by Aaron,” McCarthy said. “Aaron comes out, he’s clean in the protection, and James is the back-side alert. James ran an excellent route. It was a big-time throw, especially your quarterback throwing to his left in those conditions to be able to put the ball on the spot like that. Big play. Very well executed.”
Like any good quarterback and play caller, Rodgers and McCarthy have picked their spots with the play-action game. It’s the same thing with the back-shoulder fades that Rodgers connected with his receivers on early in the season.
“Really, we have big plays from every pass (concept) that we can call,” running back Ryan Grant said. “That’s how we operate. We feel like we can have big plays or we can run long drives.”
The throw to Jones — his only target of the game — was the first of three touchdown passes for Rodgers, who was 17-of-28 for 310 yards. He also hit Nelson (two catches, 104 yards) for a 93-yard catch-and-run touchdown and Donald Driver (three catches, 25 yards) for a 7-yard score. Jennings had a team-high six catches for 82 yards.
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