Even the NFL's best quarterbacks sometimes need an emotional boost.
That's why the Green Bay Packers' touchdown drive at the end of the first half, when they went 97 yards in the final 2 minutes of the half, was crucial to their 31-24 win over the New York Jets on Sunday and maybe to their season overall.
Against Seattle in the opener the week before, Aaron Rodgers didn't look comfortable. You could almost see he was carrying the weight of the franchise, and the broken collarbone from last season still had to be in the back of his mind. He was quick to bolt the pocket and didn't play anything like a perennial league MVP candidate.
Then against the Jets at Lambeau Field, things continued to go poorly for Rodgers and the Packers until Tramon Williams intercepted Jets quarterback Geno Smith at the Packers' 3 with 1 minute, 52 seconds left in the half. Down 21-9 and floundering, the Packers needed Aaron Rodgers to be Aaron Rodgers. He was.
When you think of all the things a quarterback has to do to be great, Rodgers did them on that drive. He completed passes to five different players. He made plays with his feet. And he stood tall and made throws when he knew he was going to get hit.
Two plays stood out most.
The first was Rodgers' 11-yard scramble early in the drive, on a first down from his own 19. Against a four-man rush, he didn't find any receivers open against man-to-man coverage, so he scrambled through a seam to his left, cut up field and slid at the 30 for a first down.
When he popped up, the TV camera briefly zoomed in on him, and you caught a glimpse of a relaxed smile on his face. He was just playing football, not worried about having to do everything perfectly. He was having fun. You didn't see that in the Seattle game.
The other play was Rodgers' six-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb with 8 seconds left in the half. It looked like a simple play. Rodgers fielded the shotgun snap, quickly loaded and threw to Cobb on a short slant from the right slot for the score.
What you didn't see until the replay is that Jets linebacker Demario Davis is unblocked blitzing off the Packers' left edge. Rodgers knew he was coming and unaccounted for. He knew he could get off the throw, but he'd have to stand tall and take the hit. He did, and it was a touchdown
Football is an emotional game, and as the years go on for franchise quarterbacks, the highs aren't as high as the lows are low. They expect a lot of themselves and are trying to be precise all the time. Every mistake seems grave.
Rodgers needed that drive even more than the Packers did. You could almost feel the change in him, especially after the scramble. He was having fun playing football.
Rodgers pointed to that drive as the key to the game, and you can't help but wonder if he was talking about himself as much as anything when he said: "That touchdown going into half, I think, gave us a lot of confidence that we were going to have a chance to win that game."
Wes Hodkiewicz and Ryan Wood talk about the Green Bay Packers' 31-24 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday at Lambeau Field. (Sept. 14, 2014)
WILLIAMS, DANIELS SHINE
Two defensive players stood out in the Packers' win: Williams and defensive lineman Mike Daniels.
Williams' interception at the end of the half turned the game. It took points off the board for the Jets and gave the Packers the chance to cut even more into a lead that had been 21-3 at one point. Williams also had two pass breakups, and he played fine against the run, not necessarily making tackles but being where he was supposed to be.
Daniels stood out to anyone watching because he made splash plays. There was his hit on Smith that forced the flutter ball that Williams intercepted; a tackle of halfback Chris Johnson for a six-yard loss on the final play of the first quarter; and a seven-yard sack of Smith late in the third quarter that wrecked a Jets' possession.
But Daniels did more than make splash plays. There also were plenty of snaps where he didn't make the tackle but was responsible for the result. An example was on the Jets' second possession of the game, when they had the ball second-and-3 at the Packers' 29.
The Jets ran Johnson to the left, but Daniels blew up the play by knocking guard Brian Winters four yards into the backfield. That forced Johnson to cut inside rather than race to the edge, and defensive lineman Letroy Guion was there for the clean-up tackle for no gain.
Daniels isn't among the Packers' biggest defensive linemen at 6-0 and 305 pounds, but most of the time he plays big, mainly for two reasons. One, he has a non-stop motor. Two, he keeps his pads low. It's Football 101: low man wins. Daniels usually is the low man.
-- One of the reasons Derek Sherrod played better at right tackle this week than last in place of injured Bryan Bulaga was the help coach Mike McCarthy's scheme gave him, mostly from halfback Eddie Lacy.
Lacy appears to have dedicated himself to blocking in the offseason. He did a nice job helping Sherrod. He often lined up to Rodgers' right and chipped the defensive end or outside linebacker Sherrod was blocking, or at least waited a beat or two to see how Sherrod was doing, before going out in the flat for a possible pass. That's a young player who improved himself in the offseason.
-- In the first two games, offensive coordinators have been using Clay Matthews' aggressiveness against him, and figured out they're better off running at Matthews than away from him.
Smith, for instance, got Matthews to bite hard on a read-option fake to Chris Ivory on a third-and-1 in the first quarter. Matthews crashed the middle of the line, and Smith ran around Matthews' vacated spot at right end. After Smith turned the corner, he pitched to Jeremy Kerley, who picked up 37 yards, which set up the Jets' second touchdown.
Also, late in the second quarter, Ivory took a handoff to his left but immediately reversed course and picked up nine yards around right end, which Matthews had vacated when he crashed inside on the handoff.
-- You have to wonder if the Packers will play Josh Boyd more in the coming weeks, and maybe give undrafted rookie Mike Pennel some snaps on the defensive line also.
Boyd played 25 snaps against the Jets, and Pennel, though on the active list, played none. Guion, on the other hand, played 36 snaps, which was behind only Daniels (46) among the Packers' interior defensive linemen. Guion is a big man (6-4, 315), but his reputation for occasionally taking off a snap appears deserved. There are plays where his pads get too high.
One play in particular showed the contrast between Daniels and Guion. On second-and-goal from the 4, the Jets ran Ivory up the middle. Daniels got some push on one side of Guion, and Boyd earned a stalemate on the other. But Guion stood up, and center Nick Mangold and guard Willie Colon pushed him to the goal line. Ivory crashed into their pile, which knocked Guion on his back, and fell into the end zone for the touchdown.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.
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