Rodgers' awareness is offense's ultimate advantage
The play begins like any other for Corey Linsley, though his responsibility could change at any moment.
A season of working with Aaron Rodgers has cued the Green Bay Packers' rookie center into the subtle hints of weakness in a defense that his quarterback is so proficient in spotting.
If there's a lineman scrambling for a sub or a linebacker lollygagging back to the sideline, Linsley doesn't need to see Rodgers to know he's salivating at what's transpired.
"You see guys on the defense starting to move, kind of moving toward the sideline and you're like, 'Oh man, he's going to snap it,'" Linsley said. "And then Aaron is like, 'Go, go, go, go.' He signals quick ground and we'll snap it. You get a feel for it. I don't know exactly how they get it all the time, but it's just something you have to be ready for."
All it takes is one false step to set off the game within the game, and there's few better at capitalizing on those extra opportunities. In fact, no NFL quarterback was better at catching defenses with 12 men on the field than Rodgers in 2014.
According to NFLPenalties.com, the Packers caught opposing defenses in a shift seven times. The next closest team is Arizona with four.
While 5-yard penalties aren't game-changers, the free play that they trigger is what Rodgers specializes in most. It happened again in Sunday's 30-20 win over the Detroit Lions. With the Lions unable to get everyone off the field in time, Rodgers hit tight end Richard Rodgers for an 18-yard gain amidst the chaos.
Two weeks ago against Tampa Bay, Rodgers hit receiver Jordy Nelson on a 24-yard gain after catching the Buccaneers sleeping. Four plays later, Eddie Lacy rushed in for a 44-yard touchdown.
When informed the Packers lead the league in the category, a smile instantly comes to backup quarterback Scott Tolzien's face.
"Oh, we have to," Tolzien said. "It's the ultimate awareness on Aaron's part. The play ends, and all of a sudden you have to process a whole bunch of information as far as the next play and personnel coming in. I think the thing that helps us the most is we practice really fast so in the game — the game is so slow for Aaron that he can see a lot information and process it all at once.
"That's how a lot of times you get a tired defense out there because they can't sub."
Even when the defense is able to get the 12th man off the field, the inability to get properly positioned can be an advantage for the NFL's top-scoring offense, too. It's what makes the Packers' take on the no-huddle so dangerous.
As a defense, you're already trying to contain the NFL's most accurate passer, who has spent nine years in the same system. It's hard to account for every scenario when time is ticking.
The longer drives go, the more it can rattle even the strongest defenses. To get there takes years of discipline and continuity. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford tried a quick snap to avoid a video replay last week and wound up catching his own team with 12 players on the field.
What Rodgers looks for is how many defenders are running off the field after a play ends. He's cognizant of down-and-distance and quickly breaks down if it's one-for-one, two-for-two or even a four-for-four substitution package.
The latter is the jackpot since there are so many moving parts. On the last five plays the Packers have drawn a 12 men on the field call, the offense has went on to score on that series.
"Anytime you get four guys run off the field that's an opportunity to catch them with extra guys on the field and they don't always sprint off the field," Rodgers said. "When they're tired, often that's kind of the end of the period of a stretch of plays for them. You just look for everything to line up and if you can catch them, you catch them and you take a shot."
In the week leading up to a game, quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt works with offensive line coach James Campen to get a feel for how a defense rotates its players based on tendencies in the play-calling or snap distribution.
So why are the Packers so good at it? Van Pelt believes it's a mix of Rodgers combining his film study with the scouting report on a defense.
Fullback John Kuhn also factors in how the offense is operated. McCarthy and Rodgers purposely push the tempo in practice to generate a level of discomfort. If you can handle that, you'll be ready for anything on Sunday.
"We like to be able to hurry the defense up, to keep them offset, and not let them rotate personnel groups to try to make them tired," Kuhn said. "A lot of that goes to our conditioning, how conditioned we are, if we're able to push the pace and if we're able to play with the personnel groups that are in the game at the time, guys that are very versatile, can do a lot of different things.
"With that said, we can keep guys on the field and not have to change from the sideline all of the time."
Rodgers' intelligence can be a weapon. Van Pelt recalls a few instances this year when he's been writing down the previous play only to pick his head up and see Rodgers already at the line of scrimmage for the next one.
Known for his cadence and ability to draw defenders offside, Rodgers' awareness and recognition of substitution patterns is an unsung attribute in his game. In Van Pelt's eyes, he's "second-to-none" at it.
It's not just about trying to scrounge up a free play, either. What Rodgers is really doing is stressing a defense. He forces coordinators to make a choice. Offensive players have seen firsthand when defenses choose to pack it in, stick with their nickel package and take their chances against the run.
Then you're rolling the dice of having an extra defensive back take on the jaw-jarring Lacy, who just rushed for his second consecutive 1,000-yard season.
"What it does is it scares people from substituting, which ultimately keeps them on the field longer when they're tired, which ultimately will help us offensively be more efficient," Van Pelt said. "The free play, obviously if we're successful there, that's a big bonus. It has just as much importance to make them understand if you do try that, we can get you. So better leave your guys out there. When that happens, we tend to wear guys down on the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth plays of drives."
There have been a few occasions when the Packers have moved too fast even for the referees. Linsley remembers two instances — one against New England and one against Tampa Bay — when the officials were holding onto the ball to give the defense a chance to substitute.
The only problem was the Packers hadn't changed personnel. By rule, the defense is allowed to adjust if the offense makes a switch. If the offense stays with the same 11, defenses may proceed at their own risk. That's when Rodgers makes you pay.
"It's part of having an extremely intelligent quarterback," Linsley said. "The threat the defense has to get their substitutions and some defenses might not even want to sub."
As much as been made out of his mobility in light of the left calf muscle he strained two weeks ago against Tampa Bay, what's often overlooked is how well Rodgers manages the game with his mind.
His teammates learned the lesson a long time ago: Rodgers always has a pre-snap edge. It's been that way for years. It's what made him an MVP and what has the Packers' offense again in the driver's seat heading into the playoffs.
"There's countless times during the game that Matt (Flynn) and I just look at each other and shake our head because stuff that Aaron does," Tolzien said. "It's special and there's not many guys, at all, that can do what he does. We end up a lot of times just shaking our heads in awe of what he's doing."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod
Result of seven calls for 12 men on the field
Vs New York Jets (9.14.14) – Interception intended for Randall Cobb on third-and-9 (accepted)
At Detroit (9.21.14) – Incompletion intended for Jordy Nelson on third-and-7 (accepted)
At Chicago (9.28.14) – Incompletion intended for Andrew Quarless on second-and-7 (accepted, series resulted in Mason Crosby 53-yard field goal)
Vs Carolina (10.19.14) – Incompletion short on third-and-3 (accepted, Lacy 5-yard touchdown)
At New Orleans (10.26.14) – Incompletion deep to Jordy Nelson on second-and-1 (accepted, Crosby 27-yard field goal)
At Tampa Bay (12.21.14) – 24-yard completion to Nelson on third-and-13 (declined, Lacy 44-yard touchdown)
Vs Detroit (12.28.14) – 18-yard completion to Richard Rodgers on first-and-10 (declined, Lacy fumble)