Feet separate Rodgers from QB pack
When you think of Aaron Rodgers, you probably think first of throwing accuracy, or being ultra-safe with the ball, or his big-league arm.
But another trait is just as big of a problem for NFL defenses: his feet.
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are pocket passers. They rarely scramble, and when they do, their coaches more than anything are hoping they don't break.
Among the NFL's best quarterbacks, only Rodgers and Andrew Luck are dangerous on the move.
Rodgers had to be sharp in every way to put up a 154.5 rating in the Green Bay Packers' 38-17 win Sunday, but you can't discount the role his mobility played in finishing off the Carolina Panthers before the game was even half over.
It showed up early, when he kept alive the Packers' game-opening touchdown drive with a 3-yard scramble and dive on a third-and-2. And on the second-quarter touchdown drive that basically put the game out of reach at 28-0, he made two vintage plays on the run.
The first came on a first down from the Packers' 36. Carolina overloaded Rodgers' left by blitzing linebacker Thomas Davis and safety Thomas DeCoud. The Packers picked up the blitz, but when Rodgers couldn't find an open receiver quickly, he escaped to his right.
He kept looking downfield for a receiver, and as he ran toward the sideline Carolina's defense ran with him. As he got just outside the numbers, he spotted receiver Randall Cobb, who parked in an open spot in Carolina's scrambling secondary about 15 yards away.
Rodgers threw on the run, a little against his body and on the money. Cobb turned back against the grain of the defenders mirroring Rodgers and ran for the rest of the 47 yards, which was the Packers' second-biggest play on the day.
Three plays later, Rodgers converted a third-and-12 by scrambling 16 yards. On that play he had plenty of time to throw against Carolina's four-man rush. He drifted to his left looking for an open receiver against seven-man zone coverage in the condensed red zone.
But after he still couldn't find anyone, Rodgers took off for the open space toward the sideline. He outran linebacker Luke Kuechly, last season's NFL defensive player of the year, to the first-down marker and kept the drive alive. The next play he threw 3-yard touchdown pass to Cobb.
Rodgers won't always have this kind of mobility — Brett Favre scrambled less and less after he surpassed his early 30s. But at age 30, Rodgers' feet still are a tremendous asset, because if defenses don't account for him — and they usually don't because of coverage and rush concerns — Rodgers can punish them outside the pocket.
Talk about a contrast in secondaries.
The Packers on Sunday were missing their best cornerback, Sam Shields, yet they still were better than Carolina at every defensive back position. And that showed up big in their blowout win.
Carolina was missing a starting cornerback also, Josh Norman. But even if he'd played, the Packers would have had the same edge.
Shields' replacement, Davon House, showed again why he's on track to do well as a free agent this offseason. He's been making a play or two every game and did so again Sunday in the fourth quarter when he broke up a potential 35-yard touchdown pass to first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin.
On that play, House trailed Benjamin in one-on-one coverage. Though the pass was a little underthrown, Benjamin is a big (6-feet-5 and 240 pounds), impressive athlete who can go over and through defensive backs for that kind of catch.
In fact, Benjamin finished the drive six plays later by overpowering Tramon Williams on a shorter (13-yard) fade for the touchdown. But on this play, House recovered and sustained a dislocated finger when he tipped away the pass.
The difference in the teams' defensive backs was even greater at safety. The Packers abused 31-year-old Roman Harper, never more obviously than on Jordy Nelson's 59-yard touchdown pass on the game-opening drive.
Harper had deep responsibility for half the field but was out of position because he shaded toward Cobb running up the seam. That left Rodgers a big window to hit Nelson down the sideline. Harper still was in position to make the tackle at the 30, but he didn't have the athleticism to even get a finger on Nelson when the receiver cut back.
Contrast that to the Packers' open-field tackling.
Early in the second quarter, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton hit Jason Avant with a quick swing pass when Avant's man, nickel back Micah Hyde, blitzed off the right edge. That left Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to come up from safety to prevent Avant from breaking off a nice gain. Avant tried to juke him, but Clinton-Dix dropped him for a 1-yard gain.
Later in the second quarter, Hyde snuffed out a drive with a sure open-field tackle. On a third-and-10, Newton hit tight end Greg Olsen on a short crossing route. Hyde was in man coverage, closed quickly and took down Olsen for only a 5-yard gain.
■ Maybe Richard Rodgers needs to play in front of his father more often. The rookie tight end has blocked poorly all season, but Sunday, with his father on the sidelines as Carolina's special teams coach, he had by far his best blocking game of the season.
In the second quarter, Rodgers had three straight plays with key blocks. On the first, he lined up at fullback and stood up Kuechly at the line, which helped spring Eddie Lacy for a 10-yard gain. The next play, again from fullback, his cut block on defensive end Wes Horton helped Lacy pick up 11 yards through the left side of the line. And on the play after that, his pickoff-block downfield on Harper helped Cobb pick up the final 22 yards of his 47-yard catch and run.
■ It comes as no surprise that tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga received game balls after the Packers' coaching staff reviewed the video. Both had excellent games and helped keep Aaron Rodgers upright all day — the only two times Carolina hit Rodgers were when they sacked him. Bakhtiari's man never got a sniff of Rodgers all game.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.
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