Spy games help contain mobile quarterbacks

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers runs for a first down past Detroit Lions defender Tahir Whitehead in the third quarter at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY — There are certain sounds you expect to hear as a football spectator at Lambeau Field, and unless a squirrel is on the loose, laughter isn’t one of them.

Yet as Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers escaped the pocket in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, rolling to his right as the pass rush closed in, the sonic contributions of 78,437 fans transitioned from hopeful cheers to full-bellied giggles.

With a swath of DD GrassMaster turf at his disposal, Rodgers opted to run on a play designed to pass. The Colts were in tight man coverage across the board, and cornerback Rashaan Melvin tracked wide receiver Davante Adams as Rodgers approached. He had no idea Rodgers was outside the pocket, and by shadowing Adams he actually opened acres of space.

The crowd laughed as Melvin, whose team was trying to tackle Rodgers, ran the opposite direction in pursuit of Adams. The result was a 21-yard gain.

“I’ve moved around pretty well,” Rodgers said after the game. “I’ve been scrambling a lot.”

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Plays like that are why Rodgers has emerged as the Packers’ best rusher in the absence of tailbacks Eddie Lacy and James Starks. With nimble feet he breaks the pocket and exposes defenders in man coverage who are occupied downfield.

Accordingly, plays like that have encouraged defensive coordinators to tweak their approach to the pass rush in recent weeks. Rodgers, who gained 103 rushing yards during the last two games, now presents a legitimate threat. In response they’ve turned to espionage by following Rodgers with spies.

“That’s really the way people are playing us,” coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this week. “I think it’s as much as expected.”

The easiest way to envision a defensive spy is to contrast it with a traditional four-man rush in which all four linemen pursue the quarterback. In the case of a spy, one of the linemen does not rush and hovers instead near the line of scrimmage. His only job is to watch the quarterback while the players in the secondary — like poor Rashaan Melvin — have their backs turned in man coverage, oblivious to what's going on behind them.

There are, of course, several variations to the general concept, and among the most popular is using a linebacker as the spy. Sometimes, if the spy believes the quarterback is hemmed in, he will rush the passer for what is essentially a delayed blitz.

"I think being a spy guy, obviously people look at it as he just has the quarterback," linebacker Blake Martinez said. "But you also have so many things to worry about: whether you can hit the hole, whether all the gaps are closed and that type of thing. And if you go (after the quarterback), you better get him down. If you don’t, it’s going to be a long day."

Said left guard Lane Taylor: "Just a guy you have to kind of keep your eyes on. You can go to help your tackle or help your center but you have to keep your eyes on him because he can delay rush, Aaron can go to scramble out of the pocket. You just have to be aware of it.”

Both the Colts and Atlanta Falcons spied Rodgers on a number of plays during the last two weeks. The Falcons even sacrificed their best pass rusher by asking outside linebacker Vic Beasley to shadow Rodgers, a move that reflected defensive coordinator Richard Smith’s respect for the quarterback’s athleticism.

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The Colts spent much of the second half flipping between a traditional four-man rush and a three-man rush with a spy. At times their spy was outside linebacker Erik Walden, a former Packer whom Rodgers enjoyed as a teammate.

“The three man and the spy gives you a little extra time,” Rodgers said. “So you have a little bit more comfort when it’s just three guys because we can double-team two of them. Obviously the spy, it depends on how aggressive those guys are. At times they’ve been kind of mirroring and some teams will really fire a guy when they feel like there’s an opening.”

Come Sunday, it’s very possible Rodgers won’t be the only quarterback monitoring spies when the Packers visit the Tennessee Titans. Marcus Mariota, the Titans’ quarterback, is one of the fastest players in the league with a 40-yard dash time of 4.45 seconds. (For reference, wide receiver Randall Cobb ran 4.47 seconds coming out of Kentucky in 2011.)

Mariota, who had an 87-yard carry as a rookie in 2015, already has rushed for 235 yards this season at a clip of 6.7 yards per carry. Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills is the only quarterback in the league with more rushing yards than Mariota.

“You know what? For myself, I kind of like the spy because it takes another guy out of coverage or another guy out of rushing,” Mariota said this week. “Obviously, you’re kind of limited outside the pocket but to have one less defender in coverage or one less defender rushing you, I think it’s helpful.”

It certainly would have helped Melvin and the Colts last week. Save your laughter for the squirrel.

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