Aaron Rodgers razor-sharp in Packers' 21-17 preseason win at Washington
LANDOVER, Md. – In the middle of a mad scramble before the third snap of Saturday night’s exhibition, the game slowed in Aaron Rodgers’ mind.
It was the initial third down of Rodgers’ surprise start in Washington. Approaching the line of scrimmage, the Green Bay Packers quarterback’s sixth sense kicked into gear. That internal sonar, hibernating all offseason, detected a blip.
Rodgers noticed immediately when Washington’s defense tried to substitute, swapping defensive backs onto the field for defensive tackles.
“They know better, Rodgers said.
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Rodgers knew Washington’s defense was left with too many men on the field. He may have been the only one. At the snap, Rodgers threw deep to receiver Jordy Nelson, following the same script for every “free” play. His pass fell incomplete, but no worry. There would be a penalty flag.
Except there wasn’t.
Somehow, none of the nine officials counted 12 defenders. It’s preseason for everybody, even the zebras. Rodgers knew immediately Packers coach Mike McCarthy would win his challenge.
“We got them a couple years ago too in the playoffs,” Rodgers said of Washington. “So there were some angry looks from that sideline. I’m sure they talked about it, but that’s just something they’ve got some big boys out there in base defense, and we went into the third down there, and just knew they were probably going to try to get some guys off the field. We were fortunate enough to keep (them) on the field.
“It’s an interesting thing, because I’m fully aware of where that guy is off the field. The refs have a lot to look at — the line judge, side judge, back judge — they’re looking at their specific receivers and matchups. Don’t really have the time sometimes to see that 12th guy as he tries to get off the field. So I knew we had him.”
Rodgers never misses such mistakes. Not even in August. In just one drive, the two-time MVP quarterback showed he’s already in regular-season form.
Introducing two new tight ends and an inexperienced backfield, coach Mike McCarthy wanted to see how the Packers' new-look offense operated with its starting quarterback. After only playing in the third preseason exhibition last August, Rodgers debuted a week earlier this year. Rodgers said he figured he’d play some Saturday night because of how practice reps were divvied during the week. He said he expects to play even more snaps next week at the Denver Broncos.
McCarthy couldn’t have gotten better results. Rodgers conducted a 15-play drive that lasted half of the opening quarter, highlighting a good first half for the Packers' offense and defense in a 21-17 win over Washington at FedEx Field.
“It’s good for them to feel the tempo,” Rodgers said. “Some of the calls are a little different when I’m out there. There’s obviously a little more latitude with the playbook. Yeah, we’ll just keep working and practice.
“The key for us is to continue to let them feel the tempo when I’m out there.”
Rodgers finished 6-for-8 for 37 yards, one touchdown to tight end Martellus Bennett and a 123.4 rating, but those numbers don’t entirely describe his sharpness. On a trio of third downs during the Packers' opening drive, he showed his versatility. Rodgers converted each in a different way.
His mind caught Washington’s defense in transition on third-and-5, forcing that 12-man penalty. His arm rifled a slant to receiver Davante Adams, picking up six yards on third-and-3. His legs picked up 13 yards on third-and-6, crossing the red zone.
A drive that started on the Packers’ 25-yard line soon concluded in the end zone.
“I was looking for the offense to get off to a good start,” McCarthy said, “get that first drive together. I thought our run-pass mix was excellent. Aaron played extremely well. We hit the target.”
It was Rodgers’ first touchdown pass to his new tight end, though Bennett was quick to point out in the locker room it doesn’t count until September.
Rodgers credited Bennett’s route, saying his tight end had a good release off the line of scrimmage. During special teams drills, Rodgers and Bennett have been working on their timing. Bennett said he worked on the release against Packers safety Morgan Burnett during special-teams drills earlier in the week, and the extra practice carried into the game.
“We ran like nine or 10 of those with Aaron and Brett,” Bennett said, “and just kept working on the release and working different things just trying to get it. So I really owe that one to (Burnett), because he took time to go out there and practice with me so I could get better at that route and continue to build on it, and build on that chemistry with Aaron so he knows, ‘Hey, this is what I like.’
“Just talking after each rep, like, ‘This is what I’m expecting. This is what I’m looking for. What are you looking for?’ So just the communication between two guys trying to make plays, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Rodgers’ six completions were to four different targets, including each of his top three receivers. Jordy Nelson, also playing one possession after sitting out the preseason opener, led with two catches for 19 yards. Randall Cobb had two catches for 9 yards. Adams’ lone reception was the third-down catch, and Bennett’s lone reception was the touchdown.
The Packers used their two-tight end package heavily on the opening drive, exposing Bennett and Lance Kendricks to how quickly the offense runs under Rodgers’ management.
“Practice is always a little bit different,” Bennett said, “because it’s scripted a little bit. You kind of know what’s going on and things like that. It was just really cool to be out there with Aaron, with him calling the plays, and you know how fast he gets things in and seeing everything on the sideline and how the game is a little bit different tempo with him."