Hesitant Rodgers erratic right to the end

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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No one from the Green Bay Packers will benefit more from some time away from football to clear his mind and get a fresh start in 2016 than Aaron Rodgers.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hangs his head as he leaves the field following an overtime loss to the Cardinals.

The Packers’ quarterback at age 32 has the same arm talent, athletic ability and intelligence that have won him two NFL most-valuable player awards. He can make every throw and then some, and he’s a master at drawing penalties that allow for free plays.

But most of this season, something was a little off.

Whether it was Jordy Nelson’s season-ending injury or Eddie Lacy eating his way out of the upper echelons of NFL running backs or something else that impacted his view of the Packers’ offense, Rodgers looked more hesitant and indecisive than in past years.

He appeared more often to be waiting for either a wide-open receiver or the big play when smaller plays were there in the design of the offense. At other times he seem determined to throw to a particular receiver no matter what.

Rodgers didn’t have as many of those moments from 2010 through ’14, when he ascended to the top tier of quarterbacks in the NFL. But for whatever reason it was an ongoing issue this season, as was the case in the Packers’ final game, their divisional playoff loss in overtime at Arizona on Saturday night.

Looking back at the game video, there were several plays Saturday night in which the Packers had chances for good plays but Rodgers didn’t throw. Often the open man was Jeff Janis, a second-year player the Packers’ coaching staff and Rodgers clearly didn’t fully trust all season based on his performance in practice.

It makes sense that a veteran coach and quarterback would have a big problem with a receiver who doesn’t run good routes. But at a certain point, if a guy has shown he also can make plays that nobody else is making, you just have to go with it, throw him the ball and see if he learns.

When Randall Cobb’s chest injury forced the team to go with Janis as its No. 3 for the final three quarters Saturday night, he no doubt made his share of errors. But he also delivered with seven catches for 145 yards, and he and fellow second-year pro Jared Abbrederis could have done even more.

For instance, on three straight plays in the red zone at the end of the first half, Janis or Abbrederis was open but Rodgers opted to go elsewhere.

Right after the two-minute warning, on first and 10 from Arizona’s 12, Janis ran a short slant. He was open enough for a shot at a first down and possibly a touchdown. But Rodgers gave him a cursory glance, then quickly threw a checkdown to James Starks in the right flat for a 4-yard loss. It looked a little like Rodgers might have decided to go there before the snap.

The next play, Rodgers had Abbrederis on a quick timing route outside. He looked but for some reason didn’t throw, perhaps hoping to find someone in the end zone. Instead he was flushed out of the pocket and had to throw the ball away.

Then on the next play, Janis was wide open on a short in route at about the 10. He had a lot of open field in front of him and might have run for a first down or even a touchdown. But Rodgers instead threw over the top to the more trusted receiver, Abbrederis, who was closely covered on a double move in the end zone.

The Packers kicked a field goal on the drive, but hitting on one or two of those plays might have led to a touchdown that would have given them a 10-7 lead going into the half.

Likewise late in the game, on a four-down sequence starting with 3:44 left in the fourth quarter, Rodgers overlooked Abbrederis and Janis three times total.

On first down from the Packers’ 20, Abbrederis was open on a short stop route; Rodgers looked but checked it down to John Kuhn for a 4-yard gain.

On third and 5, Janis was open on a short slant but Rodgers again threw to the more trusted and better covered Abbrederis on an out. Cornerback Jerraud Powers broke up the play.

And on fourth down Rodgers bounced a back-shoulder throw to his most trusted receiver, James Jones. Janis was wide open on the other side of the field on a pick play that would have been an easy first down.

Look, there are only a couple NFL teams at most that wouldn’t trade their quarterback for Aaron Rodgers in a nanosecond. The Packers will be a contender for as long as he’s healthy.

But he and the Packers’ coaching staff didn’t adjust well to life without Nelson and a weight-diminished Lacy. They now have the offseason to regroup.

Peppers’ mistake

The Packers blew the coverage on Larry Fitzgerald 75-yard catch and run on the first play of overtime that essentially won the game, and it appears the culprit was Julius Peppers.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers blitzed both inside linebackers, Clay Matthews and Jake Ryan, up the middle, and dropped Peppers from his standing position at defensive end to cover the short middle zone along with safety Morgan Burnett. The Packers’ secondary played a three-deep zone, with one player, slot cornerback Casey Hayward, in man coverage against Michael Floyd.

Fitzgerald ran a short crossing route, and Peppers should have picked him up. But when Peppers saw Arizona’s relatively immobile quarterback, Carson Palmer, spin out of trouble and scramble to his right, Peppers vacated his zone and went after him. Palmer threw to the wide open Fitzgerald across the field, and Fitzgerald made a great run to the Packers’ 5.

If Peppers had stayed home he would have been mismatched against Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald still might have  been open. But Palmer would have had to throw over the 6-foot-7 Peppers, and by the time the ball arrived Fitzgerald wouldn’t have had all that running room. It almost certainly wouldn’t have been a big play.

Extra points

  • Cornerback Sam Shields’ return from a concussion helped the Packers secondary immensely against one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses. He had a good game in coverage overall and was a big reason Floyd had only three receptions for 26 yards. But Shields had a bad day as a playmaker because he dropped three potential interceptions. One was when he jumped a deep in route on the game’s first series, which likely would have set up the Packers at least for a field goal. The second was a diving but catchable attempt at an overthrow in the end zone in the third quarter that would have prevented a field goal; and the last was in the corner of the end zone late in the game that would have kept another field goal off the board. Had he intercepted any of those three it might have changed the game.
  • In the third quarter the Packers played a lot of pro set: two running backs, a receiver and Richard Rodgers at tight end. It’s hard to see what the allure of that position group is for coach Mike McCarthy, though. Richard Rodgers is not a good blocker in the run game and doesn’t offer any speed or explosiveness in the passing game. Maybe he’s an excellent route runner, but it still seems like Janis would have been a much better option as a third receiver than Richard Rodgers as a tight end. Fullback John Kuhn still was on the field as an extra blocker, and Janis at least added an element of speed and the ability to stretch the field that this offense lacked.

Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1 and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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