GREEN BAY - Aaron Rodgers escaped the pocket Sunday, sparking the fourth of his six scrambles for 60 yards, when he found himself in the crosshairs.
Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant had Rodgers lined up for a highlight-worthy, cringe-inducing hit. The kind that sends a poor soul into next week. He came from across the field, sprinting 20 yards before closing in from Rodgers’ right.
At the last moment, Trufant resisted temptation. He pulled up. Let Rodgers slide untouched. But, yes, he let the Green Bay Packers quarterback know his body was at risk.
“He told me he was thinking about drilling me on one of them,” Rodgers said Wednesday, “on a slide where I kind of jump slid, and I thanked him for not doing that.”
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It is the risk Rodgers takes every time he tucks the football and crosses the line of scrimmage. The reason coach Mike McCarthy was adamant this week his offense will not rely on its quarterback to run a single carry more than necessary.
Outside the pocket, Rodgers knows he runs at his own peril.
“I’m always concerned when I’m running,” Rodgers said, “about when I’ve got to get down. When you become a runner, you lose a lot of the help you get being a passer in the pocket. You’ve got to be smart about when you fall forward, and when you’re sliding. Even on the slide, making sure you’re giving the defenders enough time to pull up.”
He isn’t the only quarterback who balances the risk and reward of scrambling. Across the field Sunday, Rodgers will see a quarterback who knows the physical toll of becoming a ball carrier all too well.
Andrew Luck’s scrambles are different. Many times, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback is running for his own safety, the price of playing behind one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines. Luck has been sacked 31 times this season, easily the most in the league. When there isn’t time to let receivers run downfield routes, he picks up yards any way he can — with his legs.
It cost him nine games last fall. Luck was knocked out with a lacerated kidney. A partial tear to his abdominal muscle. A sore right shoulder. Torn cartilage in two of his ribs. He also played through a bum ankle.
A franchise quarterback can only take so many hits. Eventually, common sense must be applied. The Colts would like to see Luck throw more, run less.
Through eight games, Luck is on pace to have a career-high 72 carries this season. Why keep running? It works.
He’s also on pace for a career-high 418 rush yards.
“It's a fine line,” Luck said. “You think situationally. You have to understand the first quarter, you may not take that hit that you would in the fourth quarter, going for it on first down. It's a fine line.”
Bad things happen when quarterbacks cross that fine line.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith found himself in the crosshairs Sunday against the Colts. He left the pocket’s safety, tried to slide. Colts safety Clayton Geathers could’ve held up.
Instead, Geathers glided over Smith, slamming his head into the ground.
Smith rolled over slowly. He stayed on his back, unable to get up. The Chiefs' medical team surrounded him before, woozily, he stood to his feet.
Smith missed the rest of the game.
“It looked like he was concussed,” Rodgers said.
Smith took a hard hit to the head earlier in the game, but returned. He won’t play this Sunday, though Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder has said Smith doesn’t have a concussion.
His return and subsequent departure set off a firestorm of criticism, feeding into a larger issue that has hovered above this season. How concussions are treated has been hotly contested, especially with quarterbacks. In Carolina, Cam Newton has complained about not being protected by officials, problematic for a league that needs every appearance of protecting players.
Rodgers knows it isn’t just a fine line for quarterbacks. Resisting headshots is difficult for defenders who were raised in a big-hit football culture. It’s a tricky, lightning-fast call for officials.
The best way to stay healthy, Rodgers said, is to not get caught in the crosshairs.
“That’s a situation where you’ve got to be smart outside the pocket,” Rodgers said, “because you lose those provisions you have as a quarterback, and a defenseless player in some of those positions. Quarterback, at times, is a tough position to referee, but there just needs to be consistency throughout the league with some of the hits that we’re taking, and also an understanding that when you get outside the pocket, you lose some of that protection.”