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For Packers, keeping Aaron Rodgers safe and moving the ball can’t just be about quick passing game

September 16, 2018

GREEN BAY — It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

With Aaron Rodgers set to play essentially on one leg thanks to a sprained left knee sustained in his team’s season-opening victory over the Chicago Bears seven days ago, the Green Bay Packers would be wise to have their star quarterback get the football out of his hand ASAP, right?

Use a quick, in-rhythm, three- or five-step passing game and discourage him from holding onto the ball against the Minnesota Vikings, one of the NFL’s best defenses, right?

Smart, right?

“No,” Rodgers replied, furrowing his brow at the question. “I don’t think so.”

Wait, what?

When Rodgers rallied the Packers from a 20-0 deficit last week, a number of his throws — he completed 17 of 23 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns (152.7 rating) after the injury en route to a 24-23 victory — came out quickly, a strategy that was both effective and productive but also smart for self-preservation.

But to say that the Packers need to — or even can — replicate that approach against the Vikings, who finished last season ranked No. 1 in the NFL in both total defense (275.9 yards per game) and scoring defense (15.8 points per game), is “an oversimplification,” in the words of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin.

It also ignores the fact that on the biggest plays Sunday, Rodgers wasn’t just dropping back and getting the ball out of his hand immediately. He didn’t extend the play for long, but he did for a moment each time.

Not all ‘quick-game’

On his 39-yard strike to Geronimo Allison in the back right corner of the end zone for the Packers’ first touchdown, Rodgers held the ball, looked off the safety and then hit Allison at the last possible second with a picture-perfect throw.

On the ensuing drive, while Rodgers didn’t have to extend the play on Davante Adams’ 51-yard catch-and-run, he had to be patient and hold onto the ball as Adams got open on a double-move down the left side. That play set up Adams’ 12-yard touchdown, on which Rodgers dropped back, didn’t have anyone open instantly, stepped up and then hit Adams.

And, on Randall Cobb’s game-winning 75-yard catch-and-run with just over 2 minutes to play in the game, Rodgers held the ball – as he has done so often – and waited for the smallest of windows to open to hit Cobb across the middle. Rodgers moved up, then slightly left, hit Cobb at the Packers’ 36-yard line – with Rodgers throwing from the 19 – and Cobb did the rest.

“I think as you saw the other night, just because I wasn’t escaping the pocket, I was still moving in the pocket — subtle movements on the throw to Davante up in the pocket, and subtle movements on the throw to Randall on the last touchdown of the game,” Rodgers said. “So, I can do those things. (The injury) doesn’t mean you have to get the ball out right away. We’re playing a great defense, but no, I don’t think it makes you go all quick-game.

“(The key is) mobility in the pocket, those subtle movements that allow you to avoid an edge rusher, avoid a B-gap rush, and get to a spot where you can throw. It’s that platform, finding that zone in the pass-rush angle that allows you to get the ball out cleanly.”

Can’t be ‘too predictable’

The other challenge of trying to get Rodgers to deliver the ball quickly – beyond sacrificing some of his playmaking brilliance – is that the Vikings aren’t stupid. If the Packers try too many quick passes — and perhaps even before they try a single one, since Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer is surely expecting Rodgers to get the ball out faster than normal — the defense will know what’s coming.

“It just gets a little too predictable. Teams can pick up on it, and that’s when they start learning the timing of it, and then they’re not feeling threatened by down-the-field throws because they feel like all you’re doing is attacking them underneath,” Adams said. “I mean, it can work, but it only works until it doesn’t.

“You want to have a good, balanced approach. The quick game is a good way to go at teams in certain defenses, but you’ve also got to be able to stick in the pocket and throw a five-step (pass) and you’ve got to be able to run the ball, you’ve got to be able to roll out.

“It’s all going to be dependent on how he feels. Just because he has a knee injury, his knee might feel a lot better (by game time) and if he’s able to run a little, he’s not going ot have to run 100 yards. However many steps it takes for him to get out of the pocket. It all varies, based on how he feels.”

‘That extra second’

That’s not to say that coach Mike McCarthy won’t dial up plays that call for Rodgers to get the ball out quickly. That’s always been a component of his scheme – even with Rodgers’ reputation for holding onto the ball to set up big plays – and will continue to be.

Crucial to Rodgers’ touchdown passes to Adams and Cobb was another element: The protection held up perfectly. After a rocky first half, the offensive line was nearly perfect in the second half, including on the plays where the ball didn’t come out immediately.

“We love the extended plays and all the miraculous things that he can do, because he can do it anywhere from any point in time on the field. It doesn’t matter what the situation or the fundamental flaw he’s in, he can drop a dime anywhere he wants,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “(But) I think there’s a double-edge sword to it.

“There are times that I thoroughly enjoy ‘12’ bailing me out of situations, and being able to feel the rush and evade it. And then there are times when he’ll evade some rush right into my block, or he’ll be running around like a chicken with his head cut off. So I think it’s good and bad on both ends, but at the end of the day, he makes unbelievable plays with the extended stuff. So there are good things we can take away from that.

“What goes into it is not as many times is he going to be holding the ball for the over three to four seconds. That extra second can go by really quick, and a lot of people don’t notice, but that’s the difference between having a clean pocket and having a collapsed pocket.”

2014 redux

Late in the 2014 season, the Packers faced a similar situation after Rodgers tore the calf muscle in his right leg. The injury significantly curtailed his mobility, but even then, there were times — such as on a 13-yard thread-the-needle touchdown pass to tight end Richard Rodgers in the team’s NFC Divisional Playoff victory over the Dallas Cowboys — where Rodgers had to move to make a throw.

On that touchdown, Rodgers initially looked to the right flat, where Cobb was open after coming out of the backfield. But he eschewed that quick throw, calf injury be damned, and instead moved to his left and snuck a fastball between two defenders for the TD.

“It’s a different injury, but it can be (a blueprint). If he feels about the same and he’s able to move about the same,” Adams said. “We’re not going to tell him to take off running, but if he’s able to escape the pocket and find me or find Randall on a crossing route or whatever, it won’t hold us back. It all depends on how bad it is.”

And while Rodgers was officially listed as questionable on the team’s injury report, if he does play, it’s hard to imagine him not playing his game, even if his mobility isn’t as extensive as it usually is.

“There’s not a lot of the off-schedule plays that happen where there’s a guy wide open, where you can go back and be like, ‘Man, why didn’t you throw it to this guy?’ So the extending plays is a necessity,” Rodgers said. “It’s not forethought or predetermined, it’s reactions to what I’m seeing – whether it’s the rush lane that gets me off-schedule in my drop, or whether it’s (reads) 1, 2 and 3 not being open.

“That’s the way I’ve always played, just not giving up on plays and going through progressions. If guys are open on time, the ball comes out on time. if guys aren’t open, or they’re not in the progression, then plays get extended.”

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