Rodgers' brilliance lifts struggling offense
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Aaron Rodgers spent much of his afternoon in frustration. Cursing on the sideline. Scrambling to extend broken plays.
These were the disheveled Green Bay Packers. The running back had a sprained ankle. The offensive line was under siege. The receivers weren’t open. After an opening-drive touchdown, there were three punts and a missed field goal.
They had a four-point lead at halftime.
It didn't feel like that way.
“We were frustrated,” center Corey Linsley said. “No doubt. We were most frustrated because it’s not our potential. Really, it was a calm kind of fire (at halftime). Just saying what we wanted to do, what we were going to do, what we were going to achieve. We went out there, and we did it for the most part.”
OK, so the Green Bay Packers’ 17-3 win Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium wasn’t exactly a masterpiece. It was tough, brutal, gritty. Not pretty.
A week ago, Rodgers torched the Kansas City Chiefs for five touchdowns, finishing with a picturesque stat line. This was different. The 49ers, under defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, executed a smart game plan. While the Chiefs consistently dropped one safety into the box to load their defense against beat-up running back Eddie Lacy, the 49ers kept two safeties back and dared the Packers to run.
The Packers took advantage of the extra room in the box, rushing for 162 yards on 33 carries with a pair of fourth-and-short conversions on the ground. But the 49ers’ cautious defense prevented any game-changing, explosive plays.
“There wasn’t a lot of holes,” Rodgers said. “The checkdowns weren’t there. So we had to extend a couple plays and make something happen.”
Each week, it seems Rodgers finds a specific way to win. In the Packers’ first three games, it was the quarterback’s mind — taking advantage of free plays — that made a difference. On Sunday, it was his legs.
Rodgers’ stats weren’t spectacular against the 49ers, the team that didn’t draft him No. 1 overall a decade ago. He completed 22-of-32 passes for 224 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. His passer rating (99.0) dipped under 100 for the first time this season.
This week, Rodgers had to pick and choose his spots, but it didn’t prevent him from controlling the game.
Rodgers created a positive play out of nothing multiple times. There was his 17-yard scamper to the goal line, pump faking 49ers safety Eric Reid past the line of scrimmage to buy a few extra yards. His opening-drive touchdown to Richard Rodgers, when he avoided one defender, did a spin move out of the pocket and found his tight end in the back of the end zone.
“When you’ve got to account for him running,” Jones said, “it’s going to help the offense’s run game and pass game. so you’ve got to account for another dimension of our offense.”
Then there was his most impressive pass of the day. On third-and-7, Rodgers launched a 38-yard missile off his back foot to Jones, hitting a small window on the sideline. The completion prolonged a drive that eventually ended with fullback John Kuhn’s 1-yard touchdown plunge and a 14-3 lead.
“I didn’t see the catch,” Rodgers said of the third-down conversion. "All I heard was in my helmet that we need to get up to the line, so I was yelling and screaming that we need to run a play and force them to challenge it, if it was close. And then I heard right as I got up to the center, ‘He caught it! He caught it!’ So I backed off and got us in a different play.”
Here, at the site of Super Bowl 50, was the reason the Packers are the odds-on title favorites. It was more than a gritty, nearly flawless defensive effort, the Packers exorcising their demons against 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
On a day the 49ers defense got the best of the Packers’ offense in almost every phase — pass rush, secondary, third-down efficiency — it still had no answer for Rodgers. With the offense playing under its standard, the MVP quarterback still made a difference.
“It was a grinder,” Jones said. “Every week ain’t going to be no blowout. It was a grinder, you know. We need to be in some of them dog fights if we’re trying to get to where we want to go. This is the pros. Every game is going to be different, and it’s going to be some grinders. We came in here, good ball club in their home arena, and got out a grinder.”
It could’ve been a fulfilling day. Maybe it should’ve been. The Packers are 4-0 for the first time since 2011. They snapped a four-game losing streak to the 49ers, a nemesis in recent years.
On the offensive end of the visiting locker room, there wasn’t much satisfaction.
Linsley was disgusted with himself, and he wasn’t alone. Yes, Rodgers’ ability to extend plays was the difference. Linsley said his quarterback should never have to resort to that.
“It’s a little less satisfying knowing we could’ve done more,” Linsley said. “I know I didn’t play up to my potential for this game, and I can only speak for myself, but I know we would’ve liked to do more as an offense in this game. We came in here and talked about it at halftime, felt like we picked it up a little bit, but that definitely is not our best football.
“I know other guys feel the same thing.”
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