Practice makes perfect on free plays

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers (12) throws downfield against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field.

Scott Tolzien never heard of the notion of practicing a free play until the day he first signed onto the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad in 2013.

During his first two NFL stops, everything came to a halt when a defender jumped offside. The whistle blew, sometimes a replacement came in and practice resumed. That’s the way things went and no one really thought twice about the opportunity that might have been missed.

The Packers take a little different perspective. If one of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ rushers gets too anxious on the practice field, Aaron Rodgers immediately begins to look downfield. It prepares the defense for how to react and teaches the no-huddle offense how to best optimize those rare opportunities.

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“I think we do a great job with practicing it here because it’s such a quick-reaction thing that everyone has to be on the same page and know exactly what’s going on,” said Tolzien, who’s in his third season as backup quarterback. “Plays over 15 yards in the NFL are very tough to come by and yet they’re critical to wins. You look at turnovers and big plays, there’s a correlation with wins and that’s a way to get a free one because nothing bad can happen. It’s a big part of our offense.”

The philosophy has paid dividends. Over the last five years, Green Bay has become the free-play capital of the NFL. Under Rodgers’ watch, the Packers have executed 66 free plays from drawing defenders offside and catching defenses with 12 men on the field, according to NFLPenalties.

The Packers led the league in extra opportunities in 2011 (13), 2012 (16) and 2014 (16) with the streak only interrupted by Rodgers’ broken collarbone that sidelined him for seven games in 2013, when they forced only five.

The offense is again off to a good start in 2015 with six neutral-zone infractions and one forced 12-men-on-the-field penalty. The three times Rodgers drew Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett offside in Sunday’s 27-17 win over Seattle weighed heavily into the outcome.

“It’s growing,” said quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt of the free-play trend. “It’s new for me, but Aaron’s obviously a veteran quarterback. He has a great feel for cadence and when to use it, and how to inflect his voice. We’ll always take a free play when we can get it.”

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The Packers capitalized on all three that Bennett’s aggressiveness provided Sunday. Instead of accepting the modest gains, Rodgers cashed in with a 29-yard touchdown pass to James Jones, a 22-yard completion to Randall Cobb and a 52-yard pass interference call on Richard Sherman in Ty Montgomery’s coverage.

Rodgers’ strike to Jones on a post route was a thing of beauty. Rodgers drew the safety with him as he rolled left out of the pocket. In the blink of an eye, the NFL’s reigning MVP flipped his hips and threw a dart into Jones’ waiting arms. Van Pelt called it “one of the best plays I’ve seen.”

There have been a lot of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks with epic cadences. John Elway and Dan Marino quickly come to mind for Van Pelt, but Rodgers is the total package. Few in the NFL can match his ability to dissect a defense at the line of scrimmage and feast off it like Rodgers.

Rodgers’ eyes are skewed to the sideline after every play. He salivates at the sight of a gassed defender tapping out. It’s why the no-huddle works so well with Rodgers at the controls. In perfect alignment with his offensive linemen and receivers, all it takes is a quick adjustment to get the ball into his hands.

The Packers see linemen and rushers last five or six plays and then look for help. That’s when the mind games begin. Get off the field too late and Rodgers will make you pay. Stay put and you risk giving Rodgers too much time to navigate the pocket.

“That’s part of the no-huddle,” Van Pelt said. “You want to keep them out there and part of that is not allowing them to substitute. You use your speed to wear a defense down and keep fresh bodies on the sideline. If you do want to put a fresh guy in, you better get in and out quickly or else we’ll catch you. That’s the mentality.”

Where free plays challenge a defense is not deviating from your assignment and playing through the down. As Capers points out, it’s only natural for players to relax after they see the flag hit the ground and forget about the possibility of a potential big play forming downfield.

On the other hand, the Packers also have seen defenses break from their assignments in a more aggressive manner in an effort to stop Rodgers. The offensive line has to be ready for anything at any given time, but sometimes the possibilities are endless.

Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones (89) scores a first quarter touchdown against Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (25) at Lambeau FIeld.

“You kind of need to put your head on a swivel because I remember one of the plays we got them offside, I think K.J. Wright or Bobby Wagner blitzed the A-gap for no reason,” center Corey Linsley said. “On those kind of plays, the defense sometimes takes the reins off and just starts going, and guys come into random gaps and try to get the quarterback because they know exactly what’s about to happen. We’re going for the big play.”

It takes experience, talent and a lot of film study to make be successful, but one of the benefits of the quarterbacks and receivers’ rooms being assimilated into one this season is it allows for more communication between both sides.

Van Pelt said the topic of free plays came up “four of five times” leading up to Sunday’s game. The conversations revolved around how to attack when free plays surfaced. He believes it’s making a difference on game day.

There’s also an advantage for the offensive line because opposing rushers have a difficult time pinning back their ears in rushing Rodgers. Veteran guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang give Rodgers an extra set of eyes in the trenches and also relay defensive slip-ups when they notice them.

At their core, free plays are just an extension of scramble plays, which Rodgers so often utilizes when he moves of the pocket. Van Pelt prefers to not go into the details, but admits “there’s a method to the madness.” Receivers are trained to know what to look for and react accordingly.

Maximizing free plays came secondary early in Tolzien’s career. In Green Bay, it’s a primary emphasis regardless of whether it’s a preseason game or the Super Bowl. Everyone knows what’s expected.

“When young receivers come into this offense, they realize really fast when Aaron breaks the pocket how to react,” Tolzien said. “Otherwise, you’re going to look dumb on film. It’s more part of the offense and part of Aaron’s game that everyone is kind of adhering to.”

Packers coach Mike McCarthy has been teaching the scramble drill in a similar fashion to how he learned his offense in 1989 as a volunteer quarterbacks coach under former University of Pittsburgh coach Paul Hackett.

During his first two years as head coach, McCarthy watched Brett Favre pick apart defenses pre-snap. Now, he has seen Rodgers take free plays to new heights with the evolution of the Packers’ no-huddle offense.

“A lot of it is Aaron’s ability. Let’s be real,” McCarthy said. “You always start off with, Day 1, teaching the scramble drill and teaching extended plays, not only for the offense but for the defense. And it's something that both Brett and Aaron have taken to another level. But it's part of our training, and our players do a great job with that.”

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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