Colts throw blanket over Rodgers, offense

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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PACKERS07 PACKERS   - Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (87) can't reach a touchdown during the 1st quarter of Green Bay Packers game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. on Sunday, November 6, 2016.

GREEN BAY - The Indianapolis Colts had more than a few things planned for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offense, but everything they did began with one simple strategy.

Stay on your guy.

Don’t just play coverage on him, plaster him. Don’t let him go until the whistle blows and the play is over. Even then, stay on him a little longer just in case.

If ever there is a recipe for shutting down Rodgers it’s to play man coverage on his receivers and don’t let him scramble. Get up in the faces of the Packers’ receivers and make them work for every inch of open space.

It’s something that is being passed around the NFL and even though the Packers found a way to crack it last week against Atlanta, it worked beautifully for the Colts.

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“He extends plays and it turns into backyard football,” said cornerback Darius Butler, who was forced to play some safety with Mike Adams out with injury. “We called the calls and the corners and nickels kind of have leeway how they want to play it, if they want to press a guy or if they want to in-and-out combo (with a safety).

“I saw a lot of press coverage out there. We wanted to have as tight a coverage as we could, make him throw into tight windows.”

Or in some cases, keep him from throwing it at all.

It’s well known that Rodgers does not like to force the ball for fear of an interception and so if a cornerback can stick with his man through his initial charge upfield, chances are everything’s going to go to scramble mode.

Then, it’s a matter of not assuming the play is over and giving up on the receiver.

“We tried to make it hard for him,” said cornerback Patrick Robinson. “He’s a great quarterback, you can’t make it easy for him or he’ll just kill you. You can’t give him an easy throw. Make it hard for him every play.”

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The Colts had a secret weapon to lean on, too.

His name is Scott Tolzien.

Rodgers’ backup last season, Tolzien studied coach Mike McCarthy’s offense as though it was his own while with the Packers, so during the week he imparted as much knowledge about it and the way Rodgers goes about business to his Colts teammates.

Tolzien played Rodgers in practice and he showed the defense all of his tendencies.

“Everything from the cadence, to the scramble plays, to the check calls, to the code words they used,” Robinson said. “He definitely helped us out a lot and it showed, I think.”

From the beginning, it was evident that coach Mike McCarthy’s game plan this week was not going to be the same as a week ago when he went to four and five receivers and had Rodgers work the short areas.

Even when the Falcons switched from zone to man in the second half and started doing what the Colts did to him, Rodgers managed to scramble and hit short routes just enough to move the Packers down the field for a go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter.

On Sunday, McCarthy thought his guys could get open down the field against the Colts’ man coverage and Rodgers took shots downfield whenever he could. With receiver Randall Cobb (hamstring) held out in the first half, tight end Richard Rodgers was a big part of the game plan and got the Packers inside the 10-yard line with a 22-yard catch on their opening possession.

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But in a sign of things to come, the next three plays ended in a sack and two incompletions to receiver Jordy Nelson. Rodgers had to hold the ball and wait for a window to open and he wasn’t able to convert the red-zone opportunity with a touchdown.

Rodgers continually tried to stretch the field and had he not over-led Nelson on a deep post route or Jeff Janis not dropped a perfectly thrown deep ball down the sideline, the game might have been different. Those are not high-percentage passes, however, and so there’s an expectation they won’t all be made.

That was the risk McCarthy and Rodgers were willing to take.

“Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into game-planning,” McCarthy said. “How you react to how the defense is playing you. We expected a lot of man-to-man and to challenge our perimeter and they did. So you call plays and that’s how it works out.”

Not having running back Eddie Lacy definitely changes the way teams play the Packers, but the Colts said they treated Ty Montgomery like a running back and expected him to get the ball. They were proved right when Montgomery’s first run broke free for 24 yards.

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But even though he averaged 7.6 yards per carry, Montgomery only carried seven times. Rookie Don Jackson chipped in 16 yards on four carries and fullback Aaron Ripkowski had two carries for 4 yards, but that was it.

So, while the Colts treated Montgomery like a running back, the Packers really didn’t.

“Ty Montgomery had some good runs tonight, but I don’t think you’re going to see a real conventional running game until we get James (Starks) back, if we get him back here in the next couple of weeks,” Rodgers said.

It wasn’t until the Packers fell behind 31-13 with just under 10 minutes left that they back to the quick-hitting attack they used against Atlanta. Going no-huddle, Rodgers drove the team 75 yards on six plays for one touchdown and then 80 yards on seven plays for another to cut the lead to 31-26.

If the Packers had gotten the ball back one more time, Rodgers would have been given a second chance to lead a game-winning drive after failing against the Falcons. But that opportunity never came and the crowd at Lambeau Field could only wonder why they hadn’t played this way the entire game.

“We felt comfortable that they weren’t going to be able to stop us a whole lot,” Rodgers said. “We just kind of stopped ourselves.”

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