Sometimes even excellent, well-executed game plans aren’t enough because a player is just too good.
We saw that in the Green Bay Packers’ 17-3 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Eric Mangini, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, watched Aaron Rodgers break the pocket time and again and make key plays to beat Chicago, Seattle and Kansas City in the first three games this season. So he came up with a great plan to prevent that.
He would force Rodgers to beat him from the pocket. Mangini played the Packers quarterback like defenses play the best scrambling threats in the league such as Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick. He had his defensive line rush more to contain than sack because he wanted to deny Rodgers big escape lanes.
For the most part, it worked. Rodgers had a good game but by no means a big one (99.0 rating, 224 yards passing). But the best players often find a way to beat the best plans, and Rodgers did in this game by avoiding a game-changing error and making the 49ers pay when he had even the smallest of opportunities.
The game video shows Mangini’s plan down after down. The 49ers’ outside rushers, usually Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch, bull rushed, and when they got as far up the field as Rodgers, they stopped their feet so they didn’t go past him. They wanted to block the escape lanes to Rodgers’ sides.
That’s different than the first three games, when the outside rushers tried to win mainly with speed around the edge. Packers tackles David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay usually just rode them as wide as possible, which gave Rodgers the chance to step up or use the lanes to his sides to get out of the pocket and buy more time for his receivers to come free.
A play early in the third quarter against the 49ers is representative. With 11:15 left, Rodgers dropped back against a standard four-man rush. Safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea stayed deep to dissuade a throw downfield.
Brooks and Lynch bull rushed and stopped, so when Rodgers didn’t find a receiver immediately and his internal clock told him to get out of the pocket, he had no quick escape route. Instead, he had to go backward and loop around left end. By the time he turned up field the defense was in pursuit, and Rodgers scrambled for only a one-yard gain. That’s a win for the 49ers.
Similarly, on a third-down sack early in the fourth quarter, Lynch and Brooks squeezed the pocket with bull rushes. This time, Lynch was able to slip Barclay’s block, and Rodgers had no escape route behind because Brooks rushed to contain. Lynch dropped Rodgers for the eight-yard loss that ended the drive.
But as good as Mangini’s plan was, Rodgers still beat it on his most important plays of the day: a nine-yard touchdown pass to Richard Rodgers in the first quarter, and a 38-yard pass to James Jones followed shortly thereafter by a 17-yard scramble that set up the Packers’ other touchdown, in the third quarter.
The touchdown to Richard Rodgers showed all of Aaron Rodgers’ abilities inside and outside the pocket. Brooks and Lynch did their jobs and didn’t stray too far up field. When defensive tackle Arik Armstead got some push up the middle, Rodgers had no escape outlets outside. Only pocket awareness allowed him to dodge trouble by spinning and then stepping up for more time.
Finally, after 5.98 seconds, which is an eternity for a quarterback to hold the ball, he slipped out of the pocket to his left. And then he made a throw on the move that few if any other quarterbacks in the league can make. In one motion he wheeled and threw a dart to Richard Rodgers in the back of the end zone for the score.
On the pass to Jones, Rodgers showed that he’s also a big-play threat in the pocket. On that one, the 49ers again rushed to contain, so Rodgers waited, waited and waited, then delivered off his back foot a back-shoulder throw to Jones that traveled more than 50 yards in the air, to the 49ers’ 8
And three plays later, Rodgers pounced when the 49ers lost contain for one of the few times on the day. Edge rusher Cory Lomonier rushed too wide against Barclay, and with the 49ers in man-to-man coverage, that left the entire right side of the field open. So Rodgers bolted the pocket to the open space and nearly scored, just barely stepping out of bounds at the 1.
Some teams remaining on the Packers’ schedule will watch this video and try similar game plans. But premier players often have ways of wrecking those plans.
Coach Mike McCarthy and play caller Tom Clements gave defenses something else to game plan for with their more extensive use of their four-receiver, one-tight-end package against the 49ers.
The four receivers include Randall Cobb and rookie Ty Montgomery, both of whom played some running back in college. On Sunday, one or both lined up at running back several times, and Montgomery had two carries for 10 yards.
The problem the grouping presents for defenses is matchups. Defensive coordinators have to play dime (one linebacker, six defensive backs) against it in case the Packers go with an empty backfield. But that leaves the two slot cornerbacks playing essentially as linebackers in run defense. So if Cobb or Montgomery takes a handoff, the Packers have a great blocking mismatch to pick up a few yards on the ground.
The Packers used the grouping for several consecutive plays on a late first-quarter drive that looked promising until a false-start penalty put them in a third-and-8 that they failed to convert. They also used it for a couple of snaps in the second half.
Now St. Louis and San Diego, the Packers’ next two opponents, have another offensive package they have to spend time game planning for and practicing against.
» Defensive coordinator Dom Capers mixed up his defenses against Kaepernick in the read option, and it worked: San Francisco rushed for 77 yards and a 4.1-yard average. One time Clay Matthews lined up on the end and hit Kaepernick even though the quarterback handed the ball off, which was legal because the quarterback was carrying out a run fake.Outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott made a textbook play early in the fourth quarter when he “slow-played” Kaepernick. Elliott, who was unblocked, kept his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and slid down the line until he saw Kaepernick kept the ball. Because his shoulders were square to the line Elliott then was able to change directions instantly and force Kaepernick wide on the keeper. That gave the pursuit time to get Kaepernick, who capitulated, slid and took a one-yard loss. After that play is when on-field microphones caught Matthews barking at Kaepernick, “You ain’t Russell Wilson, bro!”
» Cornerback Sam Shields is a thoroughbred. His interception in the fourth quarter was a great display of athleticism and skill. Kaepernick had all day to throw on the play and finally took a deep shot to Anquan Boldin. Shields ran along with Boldin down field , and then when the ball was thrown he turned on the speed and leaped for the interception. A lot of players use up all their athleticism just trying to keep up, but Shields had enough to then sky for the ball.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty