Defending Rodgers: NFL experts suggest containment options

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Rodgers makes it even more difficult to contain him because he is an underrated scrambler. (US Presswire)  
Rodgers makes it even more difficult to contain him because he is an underrated scrambler. (US Presswire)  

I'm not sure which is in shorter supply for Aaron Rodgers: Stubborn defenses or superlatives. The Green Bay quarterback not only is having the best season of his career; he's having the best season of anyone's career.

He leads the league in completion percentage. He leads the league in touchdowns. He has 25 more touchdown passes (28) than interceptions (3) and is on course to obliterate the NFL's passer rating record. He hasn't lost this season, and he hasn't lost in his last 15 starts -- including a Super Bowl where, oh, by the way, he was the game's MVP.

"He's Jordan-esque," said former coach Brian Billick, now an analyst with Fox and the NFL Network. "You know that thing about 'You can't stop him; you can only hope to contain him?' That's Aaron Rodgers. I'm not sure anyone's had the kind of year he's having now."

I am, and they haven't.

But I watched Tom Brady circle the bases in 2007 and eventually someone caught up to him and the Patriots. It took 19 games, but the New York Giants solved the Rubik's Cube. My question is: Who catches up to Aaron Rodgers and how do they get there?

I posed that question to a panel of experts, and, together, we came up with a game plan. This is how it works:

1. Disrupt the timing and spacing of the Packers' attack. That means jamming Rodgers' wideouts at the line of scrimmage. The intent is to throw off the timing between the quarterback and his targets and force Rodgers' receivers out of their routes -- maybe even forcing them to break them off. That, in turn, causes the quarterback to make adjustments, and maybe, just maybe, throw off the rhythm of his game.

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"The depth of the route is critical," said one coach, "so you hope a receiver might shorten it and make it something Rodgers doesn't normally see."

But Rodgers is so dangerous most opponents keep both safeties deep to protect against the big play. No matter if you're playing a Cover-Two zone or man-to-man defense, safeties are back so far that cornerbacks can be exposed. That's why it's important they press opponents at the line of scrimmage, giving safeties time to react while unhinging the timing and spacing that is so critical to the Packers' pass attack. "That's great," said Billick, "except if you play Cover-Two deep, their offense is so varied that you run out of guys to cover. You run out of bodies. It's like the Packers say, ‘Fine, my five are better than your five.'

"It's not just that their receivers are so good; it's that they're so different from one another. Plus, they've all be together since Day One. They're a problem, so you have to change things up constantly, and you have to do something to change Aaron Rodgers' clock."

2. Force his receivers inside. On the Packers' opening series Monday, Rodgers converted his first third down by connecting with Donald Driver on a back-shoulder catch near the sideline. It was an ideal illustration of what makes defending him so difficult.

The coverage was near perfect, with the Vikings' Asher Allen running stride for stride with Driver and safety help over the top. But when the catch had to be made, Rodgers dropped the ball in the only window that was there, finding Driver with a back-shoulder delivery for 22 yards.

There's a lesson there, and the lesson is this: Go ahead and play press coverage, but make sure you press receivers to the inside to minimize the damage they can inflict.

Driver's catch demonstrated why. It's virtually impossible to cover the back-shoulder catch when cornerbacks aren't watching the ball. I saw it happen against Quentin Jammer in San Diego, and I saw it happen again to Allen on Monday night.

"That's why you have to force receivers inside," said former coach Herm Edwards, now an ESPN analyst. "I would never let them run to the outside because the minute you turn to run, your back is to the ball, and you have a problem. I mean, the minute you turn your head, the ball is out, and his receivers do a great job of adjusting to it.

"Aaron Rodgers is not only good at the back-shoulder fade; he's good at the back-hip fade, too. He puts the ball where you're not going to get it."

By forcing receivers inside, you allow cornerbacks to play outside leverage, watch the quarterback as they run downfield and gain inside help from a roving linebacker, safety or both.

"You cannot allow those guys to go vertical," Edwards said. "If you have active linebackers and you're running receivers inside, there's always the danger that someone is going to hurt them. So there's a courage factor that comes in with receivers.

"I would always tell my guys, 'It's OK if they catch it, but don't let them catch it without paying for it.' "

3. Bring pressure and discipline with a four-or-five-man pass rush. The Chargers brought pressure in the first half of their loss to Green Bay and were effective, sacking Rodgers four times. But it was discipline they lacked, with Rodgers making big play after big play outside the pocket.

He ran for first downs and, when he didn't, he threw for them. He missed just five of 26 passes, threw for four touchdowns and ran for 52 yards en route to a 45-38 victory.

As several coaches put it, you have one of two choices when you face Rodgers and the Packers: You can try to beat them in a track meet, figuring you have the resources to outscore them, or you can try to shorten the game by playing small ball and controlling the clock.

If you choose the former, you better have the defensive linemen to squeeze him and the defensive backs to challenge his receivers -- and by challenge I mean get physical with them. The problem San Diego had was that its pass rushers allowed Rodgers to escape the pocket, and there are fewer quarterbacks who are more accurate ... or more dangerous ... on the run.

"He's like Michael Vick outside the pocket," said Billick, "only in a completely different way. He's so accurate on the run that he has as complete a game as anyone I've seen. Bill Walsh would've marveled at what he's able to do."

He also might have been able to defend it. Walsh had the pass rush, the linebackers and Ronnie Lott to confound an Aaron Rodgers. He also had Joe Montana. But Montana could be stopped and so can Rodgers. It's just that no one has figured out how to do it.

"I've never seen anyone who's more accurate outside the pocket," Billick said. "He can run, he can throw with accuracy and he makes smart decisions."

The solution: Control your pass rush, with defensive ends or outside linebackers responsible for containing the perimeter. Meaning? Meaning don't let Rodgers run to daylight where he can buy time or dash to first downs.

"You definitely don't want to let him get outside the pocket," Edwards said. "He's so dangerous there. The problem is not what's happening there but what's happening on the back end where your zones are fragmented.

"I've seen this guy roll to his right, stop, then throw to his left 60 yards and hit his receiver in stride. Your coverage zones can get distorted when he's running around like that, and that's tough."

4. Control the ball with your offense. "I know this isn't what people want to hear," said an AFC defensive coordinator, "but it makes sense. If you don't have the players, why would you try to run with those great UNLV basketball teams?

"You wouldn't. You'd try to be patient and maybe play the 'four-corners' approach of North Carolina. You can't match their speed with yours because they're going to beat you. So don't."

Essentially, the idea is to slow down the Packers by slowing down the game. If you have a quality running back like, say, a Matt Forte, great; you work him. If you have a quality quarterback like Tom Brady, you work your way upfield with short, accurate throws.

But always, always, always, the goal is to work the clock. Logic tells you the more you're on the field, the less Rodgers is there, and I think you can connect the dots.

"You need first downs," said Edwards, "because with every one of them another 2:40 comes off the clock. So instead of a 12-possession game you make it a nine-possession game.

"They're going to move the ball between the 20s, but once they get there -- and let's say it's five times -- try to hold them to three field goals. That's why special teams and field position can play important roles against the Packers."

It makes sense. It just doesn't always work out.

Nevertheless, Pittsburgh patiently dissect New England three weeks ago when the Steelers followed that blueprint. They took what the Patriots were willing to yield, which were completions underneath a loose zone, and patiently, methodically moved the chains.

They didn't panic, and they didn't go for the big strike. Instead the Steelers held the ball for all but three offensive snaps in the first quarter and nearly 40 minutes the entire game.

Result: A decisive victory.

5. Make Rodgers play from behind. When Green Bay wins the coin toss this season, the Packers typically defer. Four times they've done it, and on three of those occasions, opponents produced touchdowns. So at least Rodgers has had to play from behind early.

But opponents want to push him and the Packers to the mat ... make them produce when it counts in crunch time. He did in the second half of Super Bowl XLV, when he was near perfect on a fourth-quarter drive that featured 10 plays, covered 70 yards, consumed 5:27 and ended with a game-clinching field goal.

That was impressive. So make him do it again. The problem when you play with leads -- and usually big leads -- is that you don't have the experience of making last-gasp, touchdown-winning drives that have become the signatures for guys like Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning.

"I'd like to see what happens when his back is to the wall," said one coach.

Good luck. After what we witnessed the first nine games, I don't know that we get the chance.

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