Aaron Rodgers has the best combination of throwing talent and mobility of any quarterback in the NFL, and his playmaking makes the Green Bay Packers the strong Super Bowl contender they are.
But after watching the videotape of the Packers’ offense struggling to sustain drives Sunday against the San Diego Chargers — they had only 49 offensive plays after averaging 62.4 in their first five games — you have to wonder if Rodgers needed to adjust his game with several key weapons missing.
The point could prove academic if receiver Davante Adams returns at full strength after this week’s bye, and if Ty Montgomery’s ankle injury from Sunday isn’t too severe. Adams’ return alone might give Rodgers enough firepower to play his usual way, which means often buying time with his legs in search of throws for first-down conversions and big plays downfield.
But with Adams and Montgomery out, on top of Jordy Nelson’s season-ending knee injury in training camp, Rodgers doesn’t have the weapons he’s been used to the last several years. And with the way the last couple of defenses have emphasized containing Rodgers with their rush and flooding the field with coverage, one of Rodgers’ great assets, his ability to keep plays alive by scrambling, has become more of a double-edged sword.
Rodgers always has liked holding the ball and moving around while looking for big plays or at least giving receivers more time to break wide open for low-risk throws. Early in his career it was to a fault; now it’s his talent that scares defenses most. But at least against the Chargers on Sunday, with several playmakers sidelined by injuries, Rodgers might have been better served making more quick reads and throws.
On several plays Sunday, Rodgers bypassed a quick throw for something better, and something better never materialized. That doesn’t happen often when his front-line receivers are playing.
For instance, there was the short bootleg throw to Jeff Janis that Rodgers turned down late in the first quarter for a look downfield. By the time he got back to Janis, a rusher was in Rodgers’ face so he had to throw the ball away.
And early in the third quarter there were back-to-back plays where Rodgers passed up a checkdown to tight end Richard Rodgers and then a short crossing route to Janis. With a broken tackle, either might have picked up the seven yards needed for a first down. But instead they turned into a throwaway and a sack because Rodgers looked for more, and more never materialized.
Now let’s be clear: Rodgers’ ability to get more on those types of plays is a big part of what makes him one of the two best quarterbacks in the league. His peer in quarterbacking, Tom Brady, has his own special qualities, but making plays outside the pocket like Rodgers isn't one of them.
So no one here is suggesting Rodgers suddenly turn into Alex Smith or even Philip Rivers, who on Sunday dinked and dunked his way through the Packers’ defense to a staggering 503 yards passing but still put up only 20 points. That would defeat the purpose of having Rodgers playing quarterback in his prime, no matter who's playing receiver.
It’s also hard to know how much of Rodgers’ decision making Sunday was based on his high trust in veteran receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones, and low trust in the second-year pro Janis, who had hardly played this season until Montgomery’s injury early in the second quarter. That surely plays some role in his thinking, and only practice and game reps will change that.
But the Packers needed to sustain some drives to keep Rivers off the field — San Diego’s time of possession was 38 minutes, compared to the Packers’ 22. And they clearly didn’t have as much playmaking with Adams and Montgomery out.
So as long as Rodgers is playing as short-handed as he was Sunday and against defensive game plans that rush more to contain than sack him, he might just have to lower his expectations. You know he’s not going to throw interceptions, but he might just have to play a little more quick-read ball control.
Of course, Adams’ return and a healthier Eddie Lacy might make that irrelevant after the bye.
The Safety Dance
Second-year safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix doesn’t draw as much attention as Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels and B.J. Raji for the Packers' strong start to the season defensively, Rivers' 503 passing yards Sunday notwithstanding. But Clinton-Dix is putting together a strong season — not mistake-free, to be sure, but he has become an important player.
On Sunday, he made a couple plays that stood out. The first was in the second quarter, when one play after he picked up a bad penalty (an out-of-bounds hit on Chargers running back Melvin Gordon), Clinton-Dix bolted up from his safety position and delivered a hard shot to Gordon on a run up the middle that caused a fumble. Matthews recovered for the Packers.
On the other, Clinton-Dix broke up a jump-ball, fade pattern to 6-foot-6 tight end Ladarius Green in the end zone that would have been a 19-yard touchdown. Green had both hands on the pass but Clinton-Dix hit his arm just enough to pop the ball free. The Chargers ended up with only a field goal on the drive.
» Corey Linsley, the Packers’ center, is quietly having a nice season and blocked well in the run game Sunday. One play that jumped out was late in the third quarter, when he pushed back nose tackle Sean Lissemore six yards on a seven-yard gain by James Starks up the middle. That block made the run, and you don’t often see offensive linemen get that kind of movement on a nose tackle.
» Datone Jones showed the kind of pass-rushing ability the Packers were projecting when he sacked Rivers on a third down about halfway through the fourth quarter. Jones actually lined up at left end on the play — he’s usually an inside rusher — and beat right tackle Joe Barksdale around the edge.
» Coach Mike McCarthy was peeved at halftime because he thought the Chargers had committed a false start on their fourth-and-goal-from-the-1 touchdown on the last play of the first half. He was right. Barksdale flinched before the snap, but the officials didn’t see it.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1