What comes to mind when you think of Aaron Rodgers, MVP?
Quick throwing release. Accuracy from the pocket and on the run. Great decision making.
But in the last 10 or 11 months, Rodgers hasn’t shown as much of those qualities, and never less so than in the Green Bay Packers’ 17-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night.
Rodgers often looked uncomfortable in the pocket and bolted instead of getting the ball out. His mechanics occasionally slipped and he threw more off his back foot. Where at his MVP best he might miss one throw a game, he missed at least several Sunday night. And on occasion, he seemed locked onto a receiver or tried a more difficult completion when it appeared simpler throws were available elsewhere.
DOUGHERTY: Packers' offense still stagnant
It bears reminding that this video review of Sunday night’s game is from the TV broadcast, not the all-22 coaches film where you can see the entire field on every play. So it often wasn’t clear what receivers were open or covered all over the field. There’s also no way for outsiders to know how much of Rodgers’ decision making is based on what he’s coached to do, and how much is him doing what he thinks is best at the moment.
Nevertheless, Rodgers for a while now hasn’t looked like the quarterback who won the MVP in 2014. As you probably already know, the NFL’s all-time leader in passing rating hasn’t been above the 100 mark for 14 games in a row, playoffs included. That’s stunning.
Whether Rodgers is holding onto the ball looking for big plays or to avoid risky throws or for some other reason, he hasn’t been operating the quick-rhythm, precision passing game that gave defenses so much trouble from the latter half of 2009 through ’14.
Rodgers’ numbers tell the story of Sunday night: 70.7 rating, 55.6 completion percentage, three fumbles (one lost), five sacks and one interception. We’ve gone through the video and found a few plays emblematic of his current struggles:
» On the Packers’ third offensive play of the game, a second-and-five from their 15, Rodgers combined a bad decision with an inaccurate throw on a play that also raises a question about the Packers’ post-snap adjustments.
The book on Rodgers always has been don’t blitz or he’ll make you pay, but here the Vikings did and nearly intercepted him. The Packers had three receivers at the top of the formation and Jordy Nelson alone at the bottom. Vikings safety Harrison Smith crept up to the line on Nelson’s side and blitzed off the edge. Normally, Nelson would have been a hot read because the blitz created a hole in the defense on his side. He’d run a quick slant for a fairly simple pitch and catch, and if he could break that first tackle he’d have a shot at a big play.
But Nelson didn’t run a slant and Rodgers never looked at him. Instead, Rodgers threw quickly to tight end Jared Cook on the other side. Luckily for the Packers the throw was a little behind Cook, because if it had been on target it would have hit linebacker Eric Kendricks in the chest. Instead, Kendricks reached out one hand and easily batted down the ball for an incompletion.
» One play where the TV video showed he missed a read was on a third-and-four in the second quarter. Rodgers had good protection and looked to Randall Cobb short over the middle against zone coverage. As soon as Rodgers looked, Kendricks dropped coverage on Trevor Davis’ short crossing route and was all over Cobb. But instead of immediately throwing short to the wide-open Davis, Rodgers started scrambling. He ended up throwing the ball away. If he’d stood in the pocket and thrown quickly, he had Davis for an easy first down.
» Later in the second quarter there was a third down where Nelson had tight coverage on one side and Adams had off coverage at the other. Yet Rodgers threw a contested pass on a quick stop route to Nelson, and threw high at that, for the incompletion, rather than looking to Adams on the same route on the other side.
» Late in the third quarter on a big third-and-two from the Vikings’ 14, Rodgers threw incomplete on a quick fade to Nelson. He never looked to the other side, where Cobb’s man was lined up six yards off him. That left Cobb wide open on his quick slant for an easy first down that was a routine part of the Packers’ precision passing game in seasons past. Whether that was Rodgers’ decision or a call from the sidelines to go to Nelson, we can’t know.
» Then there was Minnesota’s game-clinching interception in the final two minutes. Rodgers has the live arm to rifle the 15-yard out to Adams, but for some reason he floated the throw and didn’t put it far enough to the sideline. Waynes intercepted, and that was the game.
In all, the Packers don’t resemble the offense that led the NFL in scoring as recently as 2014, and it’s been a while since Rodgers has played like the quarterback who won two MVPs. It’s up to coach Mike McCarthy and his assistants to get the precision back in their West Coast scheme and Rodgers' game.
The inside story
Inside linebackers Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan are passing the test. The two young starters — Martinez a rookie, Ryan a second-year pro — faced the best natural running back in the NFL in Adrian Peterson and were keys in holding him to a 1.8-yard average on 12 carries before a knee injury knocked him out of the game late in the third quarter.
One of Peterson’s most impressive abilities is getting linebackers to over-pursue, and then cutting back on them for gains of 15 yards or more. But Martinez and Ryan consistently did a good job of staying disciplined and also pressing the line of scrimmage, and Peterson didn’t have any of those runs — his long gain was five yards.
It wasn’t just that Martinez and Ryan made tackles — they combined for 11 — but they closed off running lanes. The reason they’re in the starting lineup while Sam Barrington was released is that they’re better at reacting to the run and quickly attacking the line to close running lanes. That contributed to Peterson having little running room, which sometimes left the tackling for the defensive line and outside linebackers.
You have to wonder if the Packers are going to be on a punting merry-go-round for a while after cutting Tim Masthay late in camp. After an OK regular-season debut, new punter Jacob Schum had a bad night in the ideal conditions of a domed stadium. He had two chances to flip the field position, both in the first quarter from inside the Packers’ 20, but hit mediocre punts of 34 yards and 42 yards. In those situations and punting conditions, you’re looking for him to swing away and hit something closer to 50-yarders. He’ll need a good game this week or the Packers could be looking for a new punter over their bye.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1