GREEN BAY — There are many ways in which Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers infuriates opposing defenses. At his best, Rodgers torments them with his hard count and burns man coverage with well-timed scrambles. He dances in the pocket with a ballerina’s ease before flicking his wrist for laser-like completions.
His latest agitator, the one buoying this atypical Packers’ offense, is an instantaneous release that leads to quick completions for small clumps of yards. Rodgers unloads the ball before the defense can blink, and milliseconds later the Packers move the chains.
“That’s a unique trait of his,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “From the time it hits his hands to the time it comes out can be lightning fast.”
The Philadelphia Eagles are likely to agree.
Rodgers was tremendous in Monday night’s victory and put together a performance that Van Pelt dubbed his best of the season. With masterful command and uncanny precision, Rodgers diced the Eagles with an avalanche of short passes that frustrated a helpless secondary. He finished 30 of 39 for 313 yards and two touchdowns, but the final stat line obscured the overarching strategy: Twenty of his 30 completions yielded 10 yards or fewer.
Rodgers peppered the Eagles until they perished.
“He does it in practice all the time,” defensive back Micah Hyde said.
While the Eagles were the latest victims of Dink-and-Dunk USA, it’s easy to forget there are more than two dozen players in the Packers’ locker room who endure such madness on daily basis. Rodgers, consummate competitor that he is, spares no one from the rapid-fire attack. He slings it in practice like he does in the games, which means that even his teammates can’t stop it.
Consider some responses from all three levels of the defense: “If somebody is getting the ball out that quick, you can’t get a rush on them or anything like that,” linebacker Joe Thomas said. “When he’s throwing it as accurate as he’s throwing it, I don’t think there’s anything you can do.”
Said outside linebacker Datone Jones: “You’ve just got to play your game. You never know when a play might be extended. You see it all the time with our offense: A play gets extended, Aaron gets out of the pocket, he’s running around, he’s creating a play. You don’t get discouraged you’ve just got to keep rushing and just keep going.”
Hyde, who plays both slot corner and safety, laughed at his own suggestion: “You can always guess. As a DB that’s not the best thing you should do. But I think that would be the only way you can stop those routes.”
There was, however, one potential antidote cited by a number of defensive players: clean tackling.
Monday’s steady diet of short passes allowed Rodgers to release the ball quickly enough to mitigate opportunities for pass breakups, which forces the defense to more or less concede the catch. At that point, defensive players said, the dink-and-dunk attack becomes a thorough examination of tackling efficiency. Yards after the catch must be limited.
Some examples: In the second quarter against the Eagles, Rodgers completed back-to-back passes to wide receiver Randall Cobb. The first pass gained 8 yards on third-and-7 with the ball released in approximately .97 seconds. The second pass, which the Eagles halted for no gain, was out of Rodgers’ hand in .58 seconds. Many times, Van Pelt said, Rodgers does not even grab the laces. He simply catches the snap and throws.
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Neither of those passes — and there were many others — can be stopped by defense unless it gambles. It's what happens after the catch that determines their success or failure in a given week. And on Monday the Eagles failed.
“When he’s getting the ball out that quick, unless you know what’s coming you’re not going to break up the pass,” safety Kentrell Brice said. “You have to try to tackle after the catch. It’s kind of — well, it’s not kind of frustrating it’s really frustrating because as a defensive player you want to be able to make plays, make interceptions and knock the ball down. But when the ball is getting out quick and he’s hitting his targets and his reads that he wants to go to, it’s kind of frustrating for the defense.
“You have to wrap up. Rally up and make the tackle. Everybody has to run to the ball just in case one person doesn’t (make the play).”
Blink once and the pass has already been completed. Blink twice and short gain turns into much, much more.