You wouldn’t think much of Aaron Rodgers on Thursday night if you looked only at his stat line.
Sure, he threw for four touchdowns, but that alone isn’t impressive in today’s NFL. And his 179 yards passing? He’s had plenty of halves better than that. In a career of 139 starts, Rodgers has thrown for fewer yards only 11 times, and two of those were games he didn’t finish because of injury.
Less than a week ago, Rodgers put up more recognizable numbers (313 yards) in an overtime win over Cincinnati, yet he played far better in the Packers’ 35-14 thumping of the Chicago Bears on Thursday night. In many ways it was a masterful performance, 179 yards notwithstanding.
The Packers needed Rodgers to play like that. They were missing their top four tackles (David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga, Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy) because of injuries. In essence, their offensive line consisted of four guards and a center. Yet, they won in a blowout, in part because of four Bears turnovers, and in part because of Rodgers.
Under the circumstances, the Packers’ offensive line was fine. It blocked pretty well in the run game, and gave up only two sacks. Tackles Lane Taylor and Justin McCray were forced to play out of position, and while they deserve kudos for their pluck and versatility, let’s not overstate the case. Rodgers didn’t have a lot of time to throw, and a game plan that emphasized short drops and quick throws was critical to keeping Rodgers from taking too many hits.
So while this wasn’t one of Rodgers’ 400-yard games, it was one of his better performances. He was in command of the game mentally, and showed that he sets himself apart from the rest of the NFL because of his abilities to both escape the pocket and make pinpoint throws on the run.
No play demonstrated that more than a third-down completion to tight end Martellus Bennett on the Packers’ first drive of the game. On a third-and-1 from the Bears’ 31, Rodgers ran a bootleg to his right but had the Bears’ most athletic pass rusher, 2016 first-round pick Leonard Floyd (4.60-second 40), in pursuit.
While running hard to his right, Rodgers threw a dart that went 23 yards in the air and hit Bennett between the numbers. There might not be another quarterback in the league who can make that play. Maybe the only one is Andrew Luck, and he hasn’t played yet this year because he’s still recovering from shoulder surgery. You just don’t see throws like that often, even in the NFL.
Rodgers did the same thing moving to his left later in the quarter. His dart to Jordy Nelson along the sidelines was on the money, though Nelson couldn’t hang on after getting hit. Catch or no catch, it was an exceptional throw.
The play that best showed Rodgers’ command of the game was his eight-yard touchdown pass to Nelson on the first snap of the fourth quarter. This one was over at the line of scrimmage. Rodgers could see what was going to happen by the Bears’ alignment, so after taking the snap he looked to the middle of the field, where Geronimo Allison was running an in route.
Safety Eddie Jackson didn’t have a chance. On the replay you can see the Bears’ secondary, including Jackson, turn to the middle. Nelson then broke outside, and Jackson wasn’t within 10 yards of him on what was as easy a pitch-and-catch as you’ll ever see.
What we saw Thursday was a quarterback doing all the little things (changing plays at the line of scrimmage, controlling defensive backs with his eyes) and the big things (keeping plays alive with his feet, hitting guys in stride while on the move) at the highest of levels.
The Packers will need a lot of that this year. There will be plenty of weeks when the quarterback on the other side of the field is a lot better than Mike Glennon, and Rodgers is going to have to keep the pressure on by scoring early and often.
For some reason there’s a narrative among some Packers fans and observers that free-agent signee Jahri Evans has been a liability at right guard.
In fact, the 34-year-old has played pretty good football through four games. Of course he’s not the Pro Bowl player of his past, but he’s the kind of guy you want on your team and on the field: a big, strong, tough veteran who knows all the tricks.
Evans’ run blocking stood out against the Bears. On the Packers’ first series he had back-to-back plays that were eye-catching. On one, he pulled, met linebacker Danny Trevathan in the hole, and with one blast moved him back two full yards to open the way for Ty Montgomery. On the other he jumped out to the second level and knocked linebacker Christian Jones out of the hole.
Evans isn’t the athlete he’d been, so he doesn’t get out on screens well, and he isn’t as quick off the ball as he was in his prime. But Aaron Jones’ two-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was set up by Evans, who with a veteran’s know-how allowed 332-pound defensive lineman Akiem Hicks to run himself out the play.
Hicks was strong and quick enough to get the inside gap on Evans off the snap. But Evans knew the run was coming right off his backside, so he just guided Hicks the way he wanted to go, and that left Jones with a nice hole to dive through. That’s veteran jujitsu, turning an opponent’s strength against himself.
» After watching defensive lineman Quinton Dial the last three weeks, it’s hard to see why the San Francisco 49ers cut him after training camp. Dial isn’t much of a pass rusher, but as a run defender he has good size (6-feet-5, 318 pounds) and length (34 ½-inch arms), and is hard to move in the middle of the line.
He played a lot Thursday night (33 snaps) because defensive coordinator Dom Capers went with his base 3-4 scheme for much of the game to stop the run. That meant three defensive linemen often were on the field. Dial’s best asset is his ability to lock out his arms against an offensive lineman, which helps him see where a run is going. He led the Packers’ defensive linemen in tackles with four.
» Rookie running back Jones showed something the Packers haven’t seen for a while. About halfway through the second quarter he bounced a run outside and beat the Bears’ defense to the corner. He slipped on the rain-soaked turf as he turned up field, but that was a sign he might have a role as a change-of-pace runner even after Montgomery returns from the broken rib he sustained Thursday night.
Quarterback: A masterful performance from Aaron Rodgers, who got the ball out fast and made a lot of subtly excellent plays. Only thing preventing an A grade was that he threw for only 179 yards. Grade: A-
Offensive line: Allowed only two sacks and run blocking wasn’t bad, but with guards Lane Taylor and Justin McCray playing tackle, coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers protected them with plenty of three-step drops and quick throws. Grade: C
Tight ends: Blocking from Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks and Richard Rodgers was good, and Bennett finally caught the ball well (six receptions, 39 yards). Grade: B.
Receivers: No drive-killing, third-down drops, and three touchdown catches on well-run routes (two by Jordy Nelson, one by Randall Cobb). Grade: B-
Running backs: Injuries to Montgomery (ribs) and Jamaal Williams (knee) have to be a concern. Rookie Aaron Jones (13 carries, 49 yards) flashed decent vision and quickness. Grade: C-
Defensive line: Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Quinton Dial played well against the run – Bears halfbacks Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen combined for only 79 yards on 18 carries. But the inside pass rush is borderline non-existent without injured Mike Daniels. Grade: C
Linebackers: Clay Matthews’ strip sack on the Bears’ first play was a game-changer. Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan on the inside struggle getting depth in pass coverage. Nick Perry didn’t do much playing with a club on his broken hand. Grade: B-
Cornerbacks: Damarious Randall blew coverage on an easy touchdown, and rookie Kevin King missed a couple tackles. Josh Hawkins gave notice that he’s in the hunt for playing time after he replaced Randall, who was banished to the locker room after a personal meltdown. Grade: C
Safeties: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice had interceptions, but the ironman Clinton-Dix has been a little late in coverage on a few plays this year. Grade: B-
Special teams: Solid across the board even though the Packers were breaking in a new long snapper, Taybor Pepper. Rookie punter Justin Vogel averaged 47.2 yards. Grade: B+