Green Bay Packers  

 

Stopping Packers requires unpredictability, discipline, depth

Mike Roemer/Associated Press
With multiple weapons, like Jordy Nelson, at his disposal, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is dominating defenses in 2011.


 

Can any team stop Aaron Rodgers and that Packers offense? It's a damn good question, with the lean always being towards the "N" side of the Yes-No spectrum.

Is it possible? Yes. Stopping any offense is possible. First it's a matter of how, and second, whether a team has the parts to fulfill the "how."

To stop Rodgers is to limit his strengths, while thwarting coach Mike McCarthy's plan. Both assignments are tough, considering Rodgers is mobile, has a good arm, can throw a grape through a peephole, and makes good decisions. The Packers quarterback makes the most out of his uncanny discernment with a compact release. Call it the non-Tebow. Meanwhile, McCarthy is rivaled only by Saints coach Sean Payton as the best playcaller in the NFL.

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How do you stifle the Pack attack? How does a team realistically stop Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, and the guys running around in green and gold tights? Follow these six steps:

a. Confuse Rodgers' decision-making process
b. Be unpredictable and unorthodox enough to deemphasize the strength of McCarthy's playcalling ability
c. Take away Rodgers' best weapon
d. Control the line of scrimmage with fresh legs and the right front
e. Blitz sparingly: quality, not quantity
f. Don't watch Rodgers' eyes. Cover the zone assigned, and let the chips fall where they may

If I were Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky this weekend, or any other DC, these are the tactics I would employ. Let's examine each:

Confuse Rodgers' decision-making process, while being unpredictable enough to stay ahead of McCarthy

A team can't solely play man-to-man or even Cover Two against Rodgers, as McCarthy will adjust his play selections to set the defense up with cheap stuff, then expose it by going vertical to Jordy Nelson or James Jones.

A defensive coordinator must be versatile and sometimes unorthodox, anything to force Rodgers to spend more time diagnosing what he's seeing, thus increasing the chance of pocket pressure or forcing the franchise quarterback into a hurried mistake.

Perfect example: Brian Urlacher's fourth-quarter interception in the Packers-Bears Week 3 tilt (see video, right). Chicago played a zone-man combo, with Urlacher showing blitz. Rodgers thought he had Finley open up the seam before the safety could get there, but Urlacher dropped into the zone quickly, crossing in front of Finley, to Rodgers' complete surprise. The result was a beautiful pick on a great play originating from deception.

Any kind of confusion is good confusion. Trick Rodgers into making a mistake, or make him question his progressions.

"You have to make Rodgers pat, pat, pat the ball," says NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks, a former NFL defensive back. "That's what you want to do to disrupt his timing. (Green Bay's) offense is based all on timing."

Take away Rodgers' best weapon

Defenses should bracket cover Jennings until the Packers beat them with Finley, Jones or Nelson. That means playing a safety over the top of Jennings. In theory, the Chargers could play safety Eric Weddle or Steve Gregory over Jennings' side, with corner Marcus Gilchrist (their second-best corner) lined up head-to-head. That leaves San Diego's best cover man, Quentin Jammer, on Nelson.

Advantage: Chargers.

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Of course, Rodgers will just look to Jones or Donald Driver isolated against the third-best corner. That's OK. While Jones has made some big plays, he can be very unreliable. Driver isn't taking over contests at this stage of his career.

Of course, Finley still presents a problem at tight end, as he's matchup hell for just about any linebacker or safety.

"He's difficult to defend against, and they love going to him," says Brooks. "The key is to make him 'earn it' by not giving him a free release."

The best-case scenario, given the Packers' other weapons, is to bump Finley with the strong-side linebacker, and pick him up with the other safety. San Diego's Weddle is one of the best in pro football and could viably handle that assignment.

Control the line of scrimmage with fresh legs and the right front

If you look historically at some of Rodgers' worst games over the past two seasons, they've come against effective 4-3 defenses. (He is undefeated against 4-3 defenses this season. Problem is, some of them stink.)

Rodgers threw two picks in the NFC Championship Game against the Bears and their front four. They were stifling in Week 17 at Lambeau as well.

The Lions and their rock solid front four shut Rodgers down (before knocking him out) the last time those two teams met. While Rodgers got hurt in the second quarter, he averaged just 4.2 yards per attempt and threw an interception. Ultimately, Green Bay scored three points that day. Detroit also picked him twice in the first meeting last season, a narrow two-point loss.

The Rex Ryan-led Jets play a 3-4, but mix and match so much that they often have four and five guys right on the line. Either way, getting a rush without having to blitz linebackers is the key.

If Packers opponents can take a page out of the Lions' or Bengals' playbooks and rotate their front line, they'll have a better shot of succeeding. Rodgers is fantastic on the run. Having fresh legs giving chase makes a lot more sense. It also makes a huge difference against the run, which ultimately forces Rodgers to convert third-and-longs.

Blitz sparingly: quality, not quantity

Aaron Rodgers vs. Blitz in 2011
Opponent TD-INT Sacked Passer Rating
Saints 2-0 2 151.6
at Panthers 1-0 0 129.9
at Bears 0-1 0 59.4
Broncos 0-0 0 81.3
at Falcons 1-0 0 155.8
Rams 1-0 0 143.8
at Vikings 0-0 1 118.8
Totals 5-1 3 133.5

Scaling back on going all-in with the blitz is the better part of judgment. In fact, Ryan, who did a masterful job of thwarting Rodgers in New York last year, produced a textbook example of this formula in the Jets' win over the Patriots in last year's playoffs.

If you need a reason to know why frequent blitzing against the Rodgers-McCarthy tandem doesn't make sense, take a look at the chart on the right. McCarthy knows how to attack all forms of blitzes, while Rodgers' mind is quick enough to process where the vacated zones reside. Then the guy gets the ball out thisquick.

Don't watch Rodgers' eyes. Cover the zone assigned and let the chips fall where they may

"The Packers love the deep ball. Teams that play Cover Two have a better chance because they defend the deep ball better," says Brooks. "The West Coast offense is based on timing, and for the Packers, on those kinds of plays, it's seven steps and the ball should be coming out. Classic Cover Two defenses that are disciplined are better at making plays on those routes."

In looking at so many of Rodgers' big plays, I saw a guy who is masterful at looking off the safety -- particularly against the Saints in the Thursday night opener. Cover your zone and the guy running through it, period.

That's my take on how to stop Rodgers and the Packer' juggernaut offense. Good stuff? More like, good luck.

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