Nick Fairley was in a regrettable position. A victim of Aaron Rodgers’ hard snap count, the St. Louis Rams defensive tackle couldn’t help himself. Fairley lunged forward, one giant step beyond the line of scrimmage, a 300-pound man suddenly hoping to be unseen.
This is where the Green Bay Packers' offense had excelled this season. As much as his right arm and ability to extend plays, Rodgers wreaks havoc on defenses with his cadence. Here was another opportunity, the Packers facing third-and-9 on their opening drive against the Rams, Fairley maybe a foot from right guard T.J. Lang’s face.
Instead, the official blew his whistle.
“We’ve had a couple in these past two weeks now that looked like every other free play we’ve had,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said, “and they’ve blown it dead from the sideline.”
It seemed unlikely the Packers could continue to consistently draw free plays from pre-snap defensive penalties. They were on an impossible hot streak through the season’s opening three games, drawing eight offside penalties and catching defenses with 12 players on the field three times.
The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos — quarterbacked by pre-snap technicians Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — have combined to draw six defensive offside penalties in their 12 games this season. Neither has caught the opposing defense with 12 players on the field.
Naturally, the Packers’ ability to draw free plays was going to catch attention. Two of their opening three games were played in prime time. With their success projected to a national television audience, it was only a matter of time until adjustments were made.
It appears officials have been making the adjustments, not opposing defenses.
In the past two games, the Packers drew only two defensive offside penalties. One was converted against the San Diego Chargers for a 46-yard completion to receiver Jeff Janis, setting up a field goal. They’ve drawn three neutral zone infractions in those games. Their first this season was Fairley’s penalty in Week 5.
A neutral zone infraction — which stops the play before an offense can make the defense pay — occurs when a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage and causes an offensive player to move. It can be a judgment call, depending on the official’s discretion.
“There’s not as many free play because they’re blowing them dead now,” Van Pelt said. “We’ve got them offside. They’re just blowing the whistle now. They’re more apt to blow the whistle now than let the play run, and that’s OK. We’ll take the five (yards).”
The disappointment in Van Pelt’s voice was clear. When the defense jumps offside, the Packers are searching for more than five yards.
In the first three weeks, Rodgers converted six of those 11 free-play opportunities into longer gains. They combined for 216 yards, 186 more than they would’ve gotten with penalty yardage. Each conversion was at least 22 yards, with the longest being a 52-yard pass interference call on Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in Week 2.
In context, Manning and Brady combined have converted just one free play this season. That was a 13-yard completion from Brady to Patriots receiver Julian Edelman against the Indianapolis Colts, netting eight yards more than the penalty would have provided.
More than sheer yardage, the Packers have benefited from free plays in big situations. Three third-and-1s have become first downs. Two scored touchdowns.
Rodgers, being a perfectionist, would like to convert every free-play opportunity. Realistically, Van Pelt said, a quarterback is doing well if he can converted half of them. The Packers quarterback is as good as it gets.
“It’s a different mindset when you’re the quarterback,” Van Pelt said. “Because if you know you have the flag, you’re going to be obviously more casual with the ball. You’re going to put the ball and throw it into coverages that you usually would not.”
The Packers' offense has weathered injuries over the past month. Without a full arsenal, their explosiveness has suffered. Still, perhaps the biggest thing missing has been free plays, something Packers coach Mike McCarthy has called part of his team’s offense.
With free plays in abundance, the Packers scored at least 27 points in every game during the opening three weeks. In the past three games, the 27 points scored against the Chargers was their most. Their average scoring dipped 10 points, from 32 per game through the first three weeks to 22.6 since.
Van Pelt said he believes the NFL put an emphasis on limiting free plays. If Rodgers is frustrated with fewer opportunities, he didn’t show it this week. The quarterback has noticed defenses adjust, too. The Packers no longer have an element of surprise, he knows. Opponents are plenty aware.
“They’re sprinting off the field when they sub,” Rodgers said.
To Rodgers, the benefit of maximizing free plays is more than extra yardage. The threat, he said, can get inside a defense’s head. It makes them slower to react off the snap, fearing they may jump too soon. Of course, it also forces defensive players to hustle off the field during substitutions.
There is nothing taken for granted, not against a quarterback who can torch a deep ball on any given play.
That awareness could be especially beneficial Sunday when the Packers travel to Denver. The Broncos lead the NFL with 26 sacks this season. Their relentless duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware provide two Pro Bowl-caliber outside rushers.
The Packers could benefit from any hesitancy with the Broncos’ pass rush, no matter how slight.
“It’s not about the actual yardage,” Rodgers said. “It’s more about the mental game. If we can draw them offside, catch them with guys on the field, it changes the way they approach their defense, they approach their game plan.
“When you have that in your head, you would think it’s going to slow down the rush a little bit. Against a team like this that has great outside rushers and guys that really push the pocket inside, if they’re worried about the snap count, that’s definitely going to help us a little bit.”
The yardage helps, of course. With the Packers' offense missing Jordy Nelson this season, their most explosive plays have come on defensive penalties. It’s an important element of their attack.
As the league adjusts, trying to cover the loophole in the rule book, there isn’t much the Packers can do. If the play is blown dead, Van Pelt said, it’s dead. Yes, five yards are nice.
The Packers always want more.
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