Escape routes: Aaron Rodgers adept at avoiding pressure
GREEN BAY—My vantage point, Sunday after Sunday during the Green Bay Packers season, has been in the press box high above the playing field.
From there, the magnificent ability of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers to make plays on the move spread out before me over the last two decades.
In most stadiums, the coaches booth was just a few doors down. Inside usually sat the defensive coordinator charged with trying to contain these two elite quarterbacks.
The more that I watched Favre during his 16 seasons as the Packers' starter, and now Rodgers during his 5½-year tenure, the more it became apparent just how demoralizing it must be for coordinators to scheme a front and a coverage just so and then have it blown to bits by an extended play.
Favre's coaches used to say he was most dangerous on the move. Now Rodgers' mentors say the same thing.
It's called making something out of nothing. Favre was a fearless magician, and Rodgers has followed in his footsteps while bringing more discipline to the art form.
You've seen it hundreds of times. Trapped in the pocket by the rush, they'd somehow manage to slip between the inside rushers and—voila—there would suddenly be an expanse of 5 yards before the line of scrimmage with nary a defender within striking distance.
At that exact moment, time would stand still in the coaches booth. All the helpless coordinator could do was watch, knowing he was in deep, deep trouble. Turned out, he usually was.
The mantle has been passed from quarterback to quarterback and coach to coach, but the extended play has remained the most lethal element in the Packers' offensive arsenal.
“I really enjoy that,” Rodgers said in a recent interview. “You know me. I like to throw first outside the pocket. And I'm a shorter quarterback, so to have an unobstructed view out there, you love those.”
According to coach Mike McCarthy, there's no doubt that Rodgers is most dangerous on the move. It's why McCarthy and his staff put an extreme emphasis on practicing extended situations, and why he and Rodgers have put their heads together trying to create breakout opportunities that some players don't even know about.
“We have some stuff in there,” Rodgers said. “We have some plays where there's strong potential that a play's going to get extended based on the protection and the drop-back. Can't give you any more secrets other than that.”
McCarthy and James Campen, his offensive line coach, were equally vague. All McCarthy would say is that he's spent more time on it lately than in the past.
Have their joint efforts been successful?
“The sample size is too small,” Rodgers said with a grin.
What's known is that the Packers haven't been quite as devastating in the first six games as they have been in the past when it comes to improvisation in the passing game.
“We've probably had a few more misses than hits lately,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said Thursday. “I wish it happened every time, but it doesn't. But at least you have a good shot at a big play coming about.”
Much to my dismay, I didn't begin charting extended plays until last season. I have gains of 20 yards or more (referred to hereafter as “explosive” plays) dating to the early 1990s in notebooks, but only infrequent notations on whether the quarterback was moving.
Recent history of extended plays
In 2012, it occurred to me that it might be of value to record that. Now, on each completion for 20 or more, I denote “Yes” if the quarterback was pressured or moved intentionally off his spot before throwing, or if he threw off some kind of action, including bootlegs and rollouts.
Counting two playoff games, 18 of Rodgers' 61 explosive completions in 2012, or 29.5%, fit those categories.
After six games this season, the number has dwindled to 22.2% on 6 of 27.
“That's an interesting stat,” Rodgers said. “I knew I wasn't scrambling as much; obviously, my rushing yards is down from what it has been. But, it's early.”
Rodgers has rushed 22 times for 75 yards and no touchdowns, putting him on pace for 59 carries and 200 yards (3.4). In his first five seasons as a starter, he averaged 58 carries for 279 yards (4.8) and scored 18 touchdowns.
His long runs this season are 18 and 12 yards. He had eight explosive runs from 2008-'12.
The statistical summary of Favre's career showed he hit the wall as a runner after his ninth year (2000) as a starter, the season in which he turned 31 in October. He averaged 167 rushing yards per season and 3.9 yards per carry from 1992-2000, then 40.4 and 1.7 from 2001-'07.
Defensive approach matters
Clements made it clear that the Packers don't want Rodgers to be known as a runner. However, if defenses rush four with both safeties deep and five players underneath in man-to-man coverage, Rodgers has proven capable of running them into zone coverage.
Rodgers, who will be 30 in December, attributed fewer extended plays to changes in defensive tactics.
“There's been more rush-to-contain type of schemes,” he said. “There's less get-up-the-field and get after me and more rush-lane discipline. Kind of a bull rush and mirror technique where they're kind of bulling the guy and then trying to keep you in the pocket.”
His center, Evan Dietrich-Smith, doesn't see it that way.
“Every team we play, they're trying to get sacks,” he said. “If you don't rush him, he's going to make you pay.”
Clements pointed out that extended opportunities often have come when defenses choose to rush only three men. The three are then blocked by five offensive linemen, which in turn makes it almost incumbent upon Rodgers to scramble if he wants to throw down field against eight-man coverage.
But defenses appear to have wised up. Of the Packers' 249 drop-backs in six games, opponents have rushed three just seven times. That's 2.8%, a sharp decline from 7.7% last season, 9.6% in 2011 and 9.2% in 2010.
Still, defenses have rushed five or more against Green Bay on just 23.7% of drop-backs. According to STATS, only seven teams have been blitzed less than the Packers.
Week after week, Rodgers is facing predominantly four-man rush units that have been made well aware by their coaches not to fly out of control and provide him an opening alley through which to run up and kill them downfield or with his feet.
“You've got to keep him in the pocket,” a defensive line coach for a Packers opponent this season said. “When he's hurt us is when he's broken contain. He is very dangerous there.”
Although Dietrich-Smith denied any knowledge of it, the coach speculated how McCarthy and Rodgers might have sought to create extended plays from normal drop-back and shotgun sets.
“A lot of people will drop back in their normal protection and the center just backs up and turns to try and seal one side so the (quarterback) only has to worry about one side of the rush,” the coach said. “One of the rush guys may not be as agile as one of the others so they'll try to seal the other ones and let him just handle that rusher.
“He's trusting the fact he's dealing with just one side and can extend the play a little bit and buy time. Tennessee used to be real good when the center, Kevin Mawae, would turn and seal it and Vince (Young) would be able to maneuver.”
Young was a better runner than Rodgers but wasn't in the same realm as a thrower.
“We're never that dramatic,” Rodgers said, referring to what the Titans did. “Occasionally they give me a view, but I like to throw.”
Some teams without athletic quarterbacks will just throw the ball down or kind of stop in practice when a sack becomes imminent. Not in Green Bay, where McCarthy installed a 2.5-second clock and insists that quarterbacks pay heed, move and extend every play no matter the pressure.
Scott Tolzien, the practice-squad quarterback who spent 2011-'12 in San Francisco, said the Packers and 49ers equally emphasized the importance of extending plays.
Receivers are a key component
Another critical part of the equation is the way in which Rodgers' experienced receivers would react when a play broke down. With each passing second it becomes more difficult for a defensive back to “plaster” his man, and the Packers' wide receivers and tight ends have been expert helping Rodgers by working back into open areas.
The master of the adjusted route has been Randall Cobb, who has 12 of the team's 24 explosive extended catches in the last 1½ seasons for 358 yards (29.8).
Now Cobb and Jermichael Finley, who ranks second on the explosive extended reception list with five for 124 (24.8), both are out indefinitely.
When Rodgers breaks containment now, circling in the middle of the field will be slot receiver Myles White and tight end Andrew Quarless.
Their lack of savvy no doubt was a factor why Rodgers had to throw the ball away four times last Sunday against Cleveland after having just six toss-aways in the first five games this year and 23 in 18 games a year ago.
The Packers are tied for 17th in red-zone efficiency after not having finished worse than ninth in the last five years. McCarthy traced some of the mediocrity to extended plays that came up empty.
Nevertheless, Green Bay ranks fourth in points and passing, and sixth in rushing. It has been a good offense thus far and will remain so as long as Rodgers remains on the field.
From the pocket, by far the Packers' most effective avenues for explosive completions are takeoff routes to Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Rodgers already has hit six of them.
But long bombs, back-shoulder fades, post routes, corner routes, post-corner routes, screens, flats, hitches and all the other passes the Packers have hit for explosive plays require so much work.
Extended plays, when you have a superstar like Rodgers, come so easily and have a shattering effect on defenses.
Just ask those coordinators up top.
Opponents will continue devising ways to hem in Rodgers. It's incumbent upon the Packers to make sure he has chances and then produces on the move.