Aaron Rodgers keeping busy answering challenge from Mike Pettine's Packers defense
GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers doesn’t typically need a lot of game action to prepare himself for the regular season.
And coming off a broken right collarbone suffered Oct. 15, there was going to be a “pitch count” in practice so he wouldn't stress his arm.
But somewhere between balancing caution and need, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy has had Rodgers working harder than he ever has.
Or at least that’s the way it feels.
“The old pitch count seems to be kind of thrown out the window,” Rodgers said half-joking Friday. “But I feel fine. My arm never really bothers me. It seems like we’re taking a number of reps.
“In the past where it may have been kind of 1s, 2s, 3s and then back to 1s (with the order the different units are on the field), now it’s kind of like 1s and then 2s and then 1s and then 3s and 1s and then 2s. So, it feels like we’ve taken a lot of reps.”
In a slight change over previous years, McCarthy has pitted his No. 1 offense almost exclusively against his No. 1 defense, hoping the exclusion of backups and rookies would lessen mistakes and allow the play to function the way it was intended.
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Perhaps the change is because he and his offensive staff rewrote the playbook this offseason and want to make sure the changes they made are sound. Or perhaps it’s because he wants the defense to be challenged while it learns first-year coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme.
Whatever the case, Rodgers is being challenge physically and mentally and it has resulted in mixed results.
On the one hand, Rodgers has seven interceptions in seven practices, which is a high number for him. On the other hand, he has made some spectacular plays that suggest he’s more than ready for the regular season.
“I feel good about the way we've been playing on offense, and personally I feel like I'm in a good rhythm,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers said facing Pettine’s defense has challenged him, especially with some of the blitzes. The scheme is designed to create a free rusher while at the same time switching up and disguising coverages.
Not many teams scheme to get free rushers, Rodgers said, but the Minnesota Vikings are one of them and he has felt some of the same type of heat from Pettine’s unit. The Packers have a long way to go before having a defense the caliber of Minnesota’s, but Rodgers no longer has the luxury of knowing every inch of former coordinator Dom Capers’ playbook.
“The protection elements for offense are really challenged by his defense, which is great for us; it's great practice for us,” Rodgers said. “And on the back end, they run a number of different coverages, so there's different looks.
“We're not just seeing the similar stuff, guys in stationary positions. They're moving around, they're disguising coverages.”
On Friday, Rodgers had one of his better practices and was particularly sharp during a five-play span inside the red zone. He threw touchdowns on four of those plays: from 19, 7, 5 and 3 yards out.
The best of them all was on first-and-10 from the 19-yard line when he stayed patient in the pocket, looked left and then sent a pass on a straight line toward the right pylon. As rookie receiver Equanimeous St. Brown made his break and turned his body up the field, the ball was there.
It nearly matched the no-look heave he threw for a 26-yard touchdown to Geronimo Allison at the end of the 2-minute drill Thursday.
“You don’t have too many practices around here where he doesn’t make that throw where you’re just like, ‘OK, file that onto the library,’” McCarthy said. "That’s the way you want to teach it."
A luxury that Rodgers is enjoying is the addition of some tall timber in this receiving group. The Packers added two 6-foot-6 tight ends in Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis and three rookie receivers who go 6-3 (J’Mon Moore), 6-4 (Marquez Valdes-Scantling) and 6-5 (St. Brown).
Rodgers has been working hard to establish a connection with Graham, who — if everything goes the way they think — will make it very tough to defend the end zone when the quarterback is out of the pocket. Rodgers has already found there’s a large window in which to throw with the big guys.
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“We have added some veteran players to the group, which gives us that feel that a younger player hasn’t quite figured out and the experience, especially in an area like the red zone,” Rodgers said. “I think it’s going to really help having Marcedes and Jimmy in that area.
“And then Davante (Adams) being a big guy, I look for him to continue to take a jump. That’s an area where Jordy (Nelson) obviously was a red-zone security blanket for us and had a lot of touchdowns based on little subtle things we would do or talk about during the week.
“Now (Adams) naturally can take that role as a guy who can play inside and outside for us and be a threat in the red zone.”
Rodgers said he has been impressed with the way the running game has worked even with Aaron Jones and Devante Mays (injured Friday) out with hamstring pulls. A main reason for that success is the health of the offensive line, which stands to get better if right tackle Bryan Bulaga returns to form after suffering a torn ACL last year.
All of which makes it seem like the Packers' offense should be better this year. But championships aren’t handed out until February and the Packers won’t know if they’re as good as they hope until the games start being for real.
In the meantime, there’s those interceptions.
“I'm working on things in training camp,” Rodgers said in defense of those picks. “I'm working on throws, whether it's looking or no-looking, trying different plays that we we're working in.
“We've done a medium overhaul of some offensive concepts, so (I’m) working on some new stuff and trying to get on the same page with receivers.”
And so far, he is not being cheated out of any snaps with which to do it.