Keeping Packers QB Aaron Rodgers 'clean' puts focus on pass protection
GREEN BAY - Amid the litany of questions Matt LaFleur fielded last week on his first day as the Green Bay Packers head coach, one was particularly essential to his new existence: how to get Aaron Rodgers playing like Aaron Rodgers again.
It’s the job LaFleur will be tasked with entering his first season. The Packers need their two-time MVP quarterback to play at an MVP level, which is a significant gap from the borderline, Pro Bowl level he achieved in an injury-plagued 2018.
If there was any grand discovery of a technical flaw in Rodgers’ game, LaFleur would save it. He wasn’t about to dish on his new quarterback. But LaFleur revealed part of his philosophy, a guiding principle in how he approaches offense.
“I think it’s going to take us keeping him healthy, keeping him clean,” LaFleur said. “He’s taken a lot of hits. Certainly, that’s going to be at the forefront of our thought process in terms of protection.”
It’s not surprising LaFleur mentioned the need to keep Rodgers healthy, given the sprained left knee and broken right collarbone that torpedoed his last two seasons. At age 35, Rodgers isn’t going to suddenly become more durable without it being a focus.
Rodgers’ tendency to flood the pocket exposes him to hits, but it’s worth remembering his knee injury Week 1 came from a protection breakdown up the middle, as he stood in the center of the pocket.
Keeping him clean will be of the utmost importance.
One constant through Rodgers’ best seasons, including his MVP years of 2011 and ‘14, has been extended time to throw the football. The Packers allowed 38 sacks in 2010, tied for 11th most in the NFL. Same for 2011, when their 41 sacks allowed also tied for 11th. In 2014, their 30 sacks allowed tied for 21st.
Rodgers’ play style inflates those numbers. He holds the football more than almost any other quarterback, giving his offensive line one of the toughest tasks in the league. A byproduct of Rodgers’ play extensions is more sacks, but his ability to create when plays break down is a staple of what makes him great.
When the Packers’ offensive line gives Rodgers that extra second, big plays are the norm. When it doesn’t, the offense can crumble. The Packers have been among the NFL’s top five in most sacks allowed the past two seasons, including third with 53 allowed in 2018. They were also top five with 47 in 2015, a down year for the offense.
The Packers have allowed 186 sacks the past four seasons, of which Rodgers has taken 153. Only the Cleveland Browns (207) and San Francisco 49ers (191) have allowed more. Teams with franchise quarterbacks such as the New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are near the bottom of the list.
In other words, yes, Rodgers has taken a lot of hits.
That won’t be acceptable under LaFleur. According to conversations with coaches who have worked with the Packers’ new coach, pass protection is vital to how he operates his offense. In Green Bay, with this quarterback, it will need to be.
“One thing with Matt,” said Ashland (Ohio) head coach Lee Owens, who gave LaFleur his first job as an offensive coordinator, “one of the biggest criteria in calling a play is whether we can protect our quarterback. Can we take care of our quarterback? If we can’t protect him, we’re not going to call it. If we have the change the launching point, we’ll change the launching point. If we have to change how quick we get it out, we’ll change how quick we get it out. We can’t get that guy hit. If you don’t get him hit, you’re going to score a lot of points.
“If they’re just better than you up front defensively, you better find ways to get extra blockers or get it out quicker or move where he’s throwing it from. Matt understands that. I think quarterbacks appreciate it when you understand that, and you don’t ask them to do things where they’re taking shot after shot.”
Because of the challenge of coaching a position with at least five players on the field at once, and the importance in laying an offense’s foundation, an offensive line coach is one of the most important hires when filling out a staff. Given the value LaFleur places on pass protection, it’s no surprise he wanted to make his own hire at the position.
Longtime Packers offensive line coach James Campen joined the Cleveland Browns staff in the same role this week. Campen, highly regarded in the league for his work with offensive lines, also assumed the title of associate head coach, so the move was a promotion. But he was under contract with the Packers, so the only way Campen could take the job was if LaFleur allowed it.
It’s unclear whom LaFleur is targeting to be his offensive line coach, but it will be interesting to see how he approaches pass protection with Rodgers behind center. The Packers could ask less of their offensive line by forcing Rodgers to stay on a quicker schedule, but there’s a balance.
Over the years, linemen have vented their frustration in protecting Rodgers, but they always come back to a central point: There’s a reason he holds the ball.
Defensive backs can only cover so long. Give Rodgers that extra second, and the Packers’ offense will be explosive.
The Packers have the makings of a potentially elite offensive line, with an All-Pro left tackle and quality center. But there are questions at both guard spots, especially on the right side, as well as right tackle. Bryan Bulaga has been solid when healthy, but he’ll be 30 next season with a lengthy list of injuries in his past, including torn ACLs in both knees.
Even before LaFleur, offensive line figured to be an offseason priority for general manager Brian Gutekunst. Now, it’s apparent the position will be near the top of his list, if not the very top.
“We always say this,” LaFleur said, “it takes all 11.”
Don’t be surprised if LaFleur first focuses on all five: the offensive line.