4 Downs: Vintage Rodgers in red zone

Pete Dougherty, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12)  cross the goal line on a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.

Every week I’ll share four observations the day after the Packers' game. Here they are after the Packers’ 33-32 loss at Atlanta on Sunday.

First down: The Packers’ first three touchdown passes Sunday were vintage Aaron Rodgers. In fact, he and Brett Favre are two of a kind in their abilities near the goal line. In the red zone, and more specifically as he gets near or inside the 10, Rodgers is a master when he finds nothing there on his drop back but then breaks the pocket to his right, floating and floating until someone breaks just open enough that he can fire a dart on the run into the end zone. All three of his first-half touchdowns Sunday were like that: a five-yarder to Jordy Nelson, a four-yarder to Geronimo Allison and a nine-yarder to Trevor Davis. Those plays are incredibly difficult to defend because both the passer and receivers are moving. But it takes mobility and the ability to throw hard and accurately on the move, and Rodgers does it maybe better than anyone else in the game.

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Second down: After the Packers stopped Atlanta twice from the 1 late in the third quarter, the Falcons on third down sent out three receivers, so defensive coordinator Dom Capers matched it by going from his goal line personnel to nickel. I had a feeling the Falcons would run up the middle against what was now a four-man front, and sure enough Devonta Freeman found a hole and scored. The Falcons were smart to go three receivers, because if Capers had stayed with his goal-line personnel, or even gone base 3-4, then Atlanta would have had a mismatch with a receiver on a linebacker. As it was, Capers needed the five defensive backs because he doubled Juliio Jones right at the line, something I remember him doing on only one other receiver, Calvin Johnson. But it left too many gaps to protect on the line from only a yard out. Capers might need another personnel group for such situations. One possibility might be the run nickel he used to try to stop Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott. That group consisted of three defensive linemen and two outside linebackers — the standard base 3-4 front — but only one inside linebacker, and five defensive backs. That way, there are five run stoppers on the defensive line, so fewer gaps for a back to slip through, but still five defensive backs for all the coverage responsibilities.

Third down: At age 32, Rodgers isn’t quite as fast as he was coming out of college, when he ran a 4.67-second 40, but he showed Sunday he still can do serious damage as a runner. His 60 yards rushing were a career high, and he did it without ever exposing himself to a hit. In the second half, Atlanta decided to play more man coverage against the Packers’ four- and five-receiver sets, and that opened up more running space for Rodgers because most of the secondary members had their back to Rodgers while covering their man, whereas in zone all the defensive backs are looking at the quarterback. That’s an advantage that comes with that spread passing game.

Fourth down: The Packers’ defense accomplished one big goal in this game — it didn’t let Julio Jones be the difference. Capers had LaDarius Gunter on Jones most of the game and almost always had double-team help from a safety over the top. Jones had only three catches for 29 yards, but I do wonder how much an ankle injury in the first half affected him the rest of the game. He appeared to be a little gimpy and slow for much of the second half, though I did isolate on him on one play late in the game, when Atlanta had a first down on the Packers’ 23 on its way to the game-winning touchdown. On that play, Jones exploded off the line of scrimmage, beat Gunter’s jam, and ran a hard slant. Matt Ryan’s throw was on target, but Jones failed to make the tough catch as he went to the ground against double coverage. When he really had to, it looked like Jones could play full speed. 

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