Rodgers may have to make a run for it
GREEN BAY – The best year quarterback Aaron Rodgers ever had passing the football was also the best year he had running it.
Maybe, but the way the 2016 season has played out, with opponents regularly jamming up his receivers with man coverage and dropping their safeties deep, Rodgers may be rediscovering his penchant for getting first downs with his legs.
After Rodgers tore up Atlanta’s zone defense in the first half of a 33-32 loss to Falcons on Sunday, completing 17 of 21 passes for 170 yards and three touchdowns, Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s defense switched things up and started playing press coverage with its corners.
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The Packers bogged down in the third quarter, just as they had much of the season when teams resorted to tight man coverage. Both drives in the quarter resulted in punts after Rodgers was sacked on third down.
In the fourth quarter, however, Rodgers started punishing the Falcons for playing man, taking advantage of cornerbacks with their backs to the play and safeties deep downfield. Rodgers scrambled for gains of 11, 2 and 13 yards during the 13-play, 86-yard touchdown drive that put the Packers ahead, 32-26, with just under four minutes left.
“There were a number of opportunities in man coverage,” coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “You could see the opportunity present itself.
“So we’re not going to make a living with Aaron Rodgers running the football. Let’s make that clear right now. We’re going to throw the ball, but we need to get our run game going because we’re not going back to last year.
“We’re going to run the football, we’re going to play-action pass game. We’re going to play to our quarterback.”
The Packers should be able to run the ball when teams keep their safeties back regardless of man coverage, but even when Eddie Lacy was healthy they weren’t doing it enough to make opponents change what they were doing.
Now that their running attack consists of receiver Ty Montgomery, rookie free agent Don Jackson and fullback Aaron Ripkowski, at least until James Starks returns from a knee injury, they’re playing a spread offense.
As the Falcons showed and the Cowboys before them, any team with decent cornerbacks can shut down the Packers’ receivers with aggressive man coverage. Rodgers refuses to force the ball into coverage so he has been holding the ball too long and then running out of the pocket to buy more time.
As he showed Sunday, if Rodgers runs with a purpose, it can be an asset.
During his ’14 MVP season, Rodgers was best known for throwing 38 touchdowns and just five interceptions, but until he pulled his calf muscle late in the year, his running was something teams had to defend. Rodgers ran 43 times for 269 yards for a career-high 6.3 yards per carry.
More importantly, his first-down percentage was 46.5 percent, meaning roughly half the time he ran he got a first down. It was the highest success rate of his career and only the second time he was over 40 percent.
This year, Rodgers is converting first downs 46.4 percent, but prior to the Falcons game, when he rushed six times for 60 yards, he was only averaging about three carries per game. With Rodgers still able to run effectively, scrambling might be a way to force teams to play more zone against the Packers, starting with the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
“I expect more man,” McCarthy said. “I think people watched the Atlanta game, and every defense, the Colts, just the structure of their defense is different than Atlanta’s (mostly zone).
“It’s different each and every week. People aren’t just going to change the whole structure, foundation of their defense. It’s what they do within the structure. I would think man-to-man would be played by the Colts come Sunday.”
One only has to see the price Carolina’s Cam Newton is paying for being a dangerous running threat to know there’s risk in playing that style. Newton has taken numerous head shots this season both in the pocket and out and has complained that the officials aren’t protecting him the way they do other quarterbacks.
Rodgers doesn’t carry the ball on read-options very often – he ran his first on a 2-point conversion against the Falcons – so he’s not going to be at risk as much as Newton. But he still has to get out of bounds or slide before defenders get to him or else potentially take some rugged shots.
Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said Rodgers has gotten to the point where he doesn’t take many unnecessary hits when he runs.
“I think that’s part of it in itself, his overall awareness for situations, down and distance, how the defense is playing, the voids in the rush lanes, all of that factors into it,” Bennett said. “I just think he’s extremely versatile as well. Aaron’s one of those guys, he’s a special player, without a doubt.
“And I think we all know that and understand that. He’s dangerous throwing the ball, certainly when he’s moving around and extending plays but also as a runner.”
Bennett said that the Falcons added some “spy” looks to their defense of Rodgers, usually devoting one of the four players they normally would rush to making sure he took away any running lanes Rodgers might have.
The benefit of that is the Packers only have to block a three-man rush.
As McCarthy pointed out, however, the Packers can’t base their whole offense on Rodgers running. At some point, their receivers are going to have to beat press coverage and get open on their own.
“Ultimately, it comes down to us winning our one-on-one battles, creating that separation, which if you go back and look at that tape from yesterday and our receivers did a really nice job at the break points creating that space and making plays and coming back to the ball and doing all the little things,” Bennett said.