Packers analysis: Why Aaron Rodgers needs to get rid of the ball quickly
The Green Bay Packers have plenty of reason to feel good about their big comeback win over the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night.
They turned a disastrous loss into a “W” and now go into their bye with good feelings. They have a week off to get healthy and regroup while at 3-2-1 sitting only a half-game out of first place in the NFC North.
But coach Mike McCarthy and his coaches have just as much reason to be concerned about how their team has played so far this season, including for much of Monday night. For a good two-thirds of the game, the side of the ball that has to carry them, the offense, lacked cohesion, rhythm and continuity.
That’s been an issue for extended stretches all season. The Packers have one of the two best quarterbacks in the NFL and have been putting up big yardage most weeks, but it’s not showing up on the scoreboard like it needs to for them to be a good team.
Monday night that was on full display. After a good start, the Packers had an abysmal 40-minute stretch where their only scores were two field goals. They looked uninspired and disconnected. Nobody made a play.
Then in the final three minutes, Aaron Rodgers put the team on his back and 10 points on the board, and the Packers won the game. The difference in the final three minutes? Play calling and approach. Quicker routes, quicker decisions and getting the ball out faster.
“We’re throwing the ball a bunch, and I’m taking too many shots,” Rodgers said. “So we need to find a way to get the ball out of my hand a little quicker, and establish a little bit more. I’ve got to continue to try be a little quicker.”
Rodgers’ answer suggests he thinks he and the play caller, coach Mike McCarthy, share responsibility for the disjointed play so far. That’s fair.
The Packers don’t have a lot of explosive talent, but what they have going for them is Rodgers. He has to carry their offense, and their offense has to run in a way to best make that happen.
Rodgers excels when he’s getting the ball out fast most of the time, and phenomenal when he occasionally extends plays with his feet. But when he tries to extend plays down after down, either because of slow developing routes or the desire to make big plays, that’s when things tend to bog down, and he ends up taking hits and drive-killing sacks.
If you look at the Packers’ two series in the final three minutes, you see an offense that’s emphasizing getting the ball out. Eight of Rodgers’ 10 passes on those drives were thrown in less than three seconds. Another he threw away in just over three seconds (3.11), and the other was a ball he held for 5.20 seconds that ended up an incompletion.
He also was sacked trying to convert a third down in 3.63 seconds, but that was nullified by a holding penalty on San Francisco’s Richard Sherman.
Here were some of the completions: Rodgers’ 38-yard pass to Davante Adams that set up the Packers’ late touchdown was out of his hands in 2.39 seconds. His 16-yard touchdown pass to Adams was out in 2.68 seconds. His clutch third-down, 19-yard back-shoulder throw to Equanimeous St. Brown was out in 2.03 seconds. He also had a throwaway in 2.79 seconds.
This was Rodgers and the Packers at their best.
Two-minute offense isn’t the same as the rest of the game. Defenses often are willing to give up more in two-minute, depending on the score. But that doesn’t mean Monday night didn’t provide lessons about playing fast for the Packers’ regular, in-game no-huddle.
“No-huddle vs. two-minute is not as (similar) as you may think,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “But hey, hopefully, we may go down that road more. We’ll see how it goes.”
That’s what byes are for.
Defense on the run
The 49ers hammered the Packers on the ground with fullback Kyle Jusczyk (39 snaps) often leading the way, and the main reason they usually succeeded was the inability of inside linebackers Blake Martinez and Oren Burks to get off blocks.
Halfbacks Rasheem Mostert and Matt Breida are dynamic runners – neither participated in the NFL scouting combine, but Mostert ran a reported 4.38-second 40 at his Pro Day, and Breida 4.39 – and gashed the Packers time and again. They combined for 148 yards on 26 carries (5.7 yards a rush), in large part because Martinez, Burks and safety Jermaine Whitehead, who played regularly at inside linebacker, were unable to avoid or discard blocks and make tackles in front of them.
The game’s first play was a sign of things to come. On a run to the left side of the line, Jusczyk took on Martinez a couple yards downfield and cleared him out of the way, while left tackle Joe Staley locked on Burks and never let him escape. That opened a huge hole for Breida to pick up an easy seven yards.
Martinez led the Packers with 12 tackles, but most came several yards or more downfield because he couldn’t shed blocks. The rookie Burks is more of a coverage linebacker, but he’ll have to find ways to go under or around blocks with his athleticism, or he’s going to be a big liability against the run.
Martinez did make one big stop late in the game, on first down with 4:06 left and the Packers needing a three-and-out to get the ball back for the game-tying score. On first down the 49ers sent Mostert off left guard. With the Packers in their base 3-4 personnel, Martinez shot to the gap untouched and dropped Mostert for a one-yard loss.
That’s the kind of downhill play the Packers will need in their next game against maybe the best back in football, the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley.
» Clay Matthews and Kenny Clark each had a big hustle sack Monday night. Clark’s came late in the second quarter and helped save four points. San Francisco was at the Packers’ 26 with enough time (1:02) to get a late touchdown for an eight-point lead. Clark and Martinez lined up over left guard Laken Tomlinson, who blocked Martinez and left Clark free. After the sack, the 49ers gave up trying for the touchdown, let the clock run down and kicked a field goal.
Matthews’ sack came on third down when the Packers had to have the stop with less than four minutes to play to get the ball back for a shot at tying the game. Matthews was blocked initially by right tackle Mike McGlinchey, but after quarterback C.J. Beathard was unable to step up in the pocket because of blitzers Martinez and Whitehead, Matthews discarded the block and dropped Beathard for the sack.
» All credit to Packers kicker Mason Crosby for hitting all seven of his kicks (four field goals, three extra points), including the game-winner from 27 yards, after his nightmare five-miss game last week at Detroit. It showed Detroit was indeed an aberration. The pressure on his first try, a 33-yard extra point, had to be enormous.