Pete Dougherty and Bob McGinn look at the continuing struggles on offense for the Green Bay Packers. (Oct. 16, 2016) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Here’s what the book on Aaron Rodgers used to be:
To have a chance to beat him, you needed a talented defensive line that could get pressure with four rushers, so then you could flood coverage with seven players.
Now it looks like NFL defenses aren’t even so concerned about the pressure part. They’re willing to give Rodgers time in the pocket as long they can cover with seven or eight.
It kind of worked for the New York Giants a week ago, and the Dallas Cowboys struck gold with that approach Sunday in their devastating 30-16 takedown of the Packers in front of a restless and surly crowd at Lambeau Field.
The Cowboys were smart to mimic the Giants’ approach even though the Packers beat New York a week ago, 23-16. What other coach in the league knows what does and doesn’t bother Rodgers, and the strengths and weaknesses of the Packers’ scheme and personnel, than Ben McAdoo, the long-time protégé of Packers coach Mike McCarthy?
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Remember all the time Rodgers had in the pocket against the Giants’ rushers a week ago? That wasn’t an accident. They decided they’d rather keep Rodgers hemmed in the pocket, even if he was able to survey the field, than abandon their rushing lanes and give him escape routes that would change his passing angles and allow him to throw on the run.
The Cowboys did the same Sunday. They rarely blitzed, usually rushed four, and plenty of times even rushed only three so they could have eight in coverage. It worked.
While Rodgers put up decent numbers (294 yards passing) by game’s end, his mediocre passer rating (90.8) better reflected the key missed throws and general ineptitude of a Packers’ offense that put up only 16 points and didn’t score a touchdown until the final seven minutes of the game, when Dallas was in a prevent mode while up by three scores.
Think about it. Rodgers is one of the most talented pure throwers this game has produced, and yet defenses now are defending him almost like he’s Michael Vick, although with the scattershot Vick they were worried about him running for big gains when he broke the pocket, not about throwing downfield.
How can that be? How can defenses prefer that a gifted pure thrower such as Rodgers play unencumbered from the pocket, rather than risk rushing him hard?
They obviously think he’s not comfortable standing in the pocket and throwing down after down. That he’ll overthink where to throw, not want to risk an interception with a quick delivery, or hold the ball while hoping something bigger and better opens up.
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So now Rodgers and McCarthy can count on seeing this kind of defense week in and week out, until they make defensive coordinators pay. Which they didn’t come close to doing Sunday.
McCarthy basically threw everything he had at the Cowboys. After dabbling in using more personnel groupings the last couple games, he went all-in Sunday by shuttling personnel on and off the field snap after snap. The one that might have worked best was when he went with five receivers, or four receivers and a tight end, sometimes with Ty Montgomery lined up in the backfield, and sometimes with the backfield empty.
Montgomery was the closest thing the Packers had to a spark with 10 catches for 98. Jordy Nelson, on the other hand, was a no-show until desperation time in the fourth quarter.
And in fact Rodgers hit on his share of checkdowns and short throws, as his 31-for-42 day passing would suggest. But even a good number of his completions were a little behind the target and didn’t give the receiver much chance to run after the catch. He also threw an interception right into the chest of safety Barry Church and lost a game-turning fumble inside the Cowboys’ 5 after he’d audibled to a quarterback draw.
And maybe the most stunning play Sunday was when Rodgers overthrew wide-open Randall Cobb on a post pattern in the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter that should have been a touchdown. That’s the kind of throw NFL quarterbacks have to hit to win games, but Rodgers sailed it over Cobb’s outstretched arm, and instead of a touchdown that would pull the Packers to within seven points, the Packers ended up with a field goal and a 20-9 deficit.
No wonder this is what Rodgers said his night would be like when he got home: “Have a glass of scotch and chill out a little bit, watch the film.”
He later said: “I’m going to get it fixed. Just been a little bit off.”
As for how Rodgers and McCarthy can beat rush-to-contain defenses like the Cowboys and Giants, they might simply have to quick-rhythm throw them to death. That could mean using those four- and five-receiver sets as a staple to get the best matchups they can.
Rodgers suggested as much when asked what it will take.
BOX SCORE: Cowboys 30, Packers 16
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“We dinked and dunked them a couple times and got some good yardage and they made us turn it over, taking points off the board,” he said.
You can take a big-picture look at the season and say the Packers are 3-2 and have a lot of season to right their ship. You also have to acknowledge that the 5-1 Cowboys look like a quality team. The problem is, the Packers' issues go back a year, and except for a great first half against Detroit, things haven’t looked any better this year than in 2015.
“Don’t want to let this linger on for a couple weeks and then all of a sudden you’re eight, nine, 10 games in saying the same thing,” guard T.J. Lang said.