Aaron Rodgers is on a run that rivals the best streaks of his career. During the Packers' eight-game winning streak, Rodgers has completed 68.9 percent of his passes at 8.4 yards per attempt, while throwing 21 touchdowns and only one interception. He has shown no signs of slowing down.
NFC Championship Game
- Who: Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
- When: Sunday, Jan. 22, 3:05 p.m. ET (Fox)
- Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia
- Latest Line: The Falcons are 5.5-point favorites, according to SportsLine
Aaron Rodgers 2.0
The difference between this current hot streak and a "normal" Rodgers run is not just annihilating teams from a clean pocket and by throwing quick-hitters before a blitz hits home, but even when the opposition manages to get pressure on him. Whether he stares down the face of the rush and then delivers or buys himself time by stepping up into the pocket or escaping to the outside before unleashing, Rodgers is absolutely tearing it up during situations where most quarterbacks fall apart.
Over the past eight weeks when facing pressure, Rodgers has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 8.5 yards per attempt, with eight touchdowns and no picks, per Pro Football Focus. (He has also thrown the ball away on 13 of his 74 pressured pass attempts during that time, meaning he has been accurate with an otherworldly 77 percent of his passer under pressure over the equivalent of half a season.) That's good for a passer rating of 124.1, better than the 115.7 mark he has registered from a clean pocket and also possibly a sign that he's an alien.
Though Rodgers has been on fire in those situations, the surest way to make a quarterback struggle is still to get rushers in his face. That's the task the Atlanta Falcons will be faced with Sunday in the NFC title game. If they meet that task in the same manner that the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys did before them, they will lose.
Rodgers has been under pressure on only 23.9 percent of his dropbacks this postseason, down from 29.6 percent during the regular season. On those particular dropbacks, he's just 8 of 14 for 88 yards and a touchdown and he has been sacked eight times. It's the times where the Packers offensive line has kept him clean that he has breathed fire on the Cowboys and Giants defenses, completing 45 of 69 passes for 629 yards, five touchdowns and a pick.
Fighting an uphill battle
The Atlanta pass rush was not exactly the strongest in the league during the regular season. They finished the regular season with 34 sacks, but their Adjusted Sack Rate, per Football Outsiders, was just 5.4 percent, well below average at 24th in the NFL. (Adjusted Sack Rate adjusts a team's rate of sacks plus intentional grounding penalties for down, distance and opponent.)
Basically, the Falcons had 34 sacks, but they also faced more passing situations than your typical defense because they were so often leading. That led to more sacks than you would expect in a context-neutral situation.
Most of the Atlanta pass rush during the season came from breakout sophomore Vic Beasley, ageless wonder Dwight Freeney and Adrian Clayborn. Each of those three registered over 40 pressures this season (sacks plus hits plus hurries). Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks while Freeney and Clayborn combined for another 7.5, giving that trio alone 23 of the team's 34 on the season.
None of them registered a sack during the divisional round win over the Seattle Seahawks, but they combined for eight pressures on Russell Wilson. The team as a whole pressured Wilson on 41 percent of his 39 dropbacks, a ridiculous rate that would have led the NFL this season.
The Seattle offensive line, though, is not nearly the same quality as the group Green Bay starts up front. The Packers finished the regular season with the NFL's best pass-blocking efficiency, per Pro Football Focus, and they've been just as strong during the postseason even while losing starters for stretches of the game against the Cowboys. David Bakhtiari, Corey Linsley, T.J. Lang and Bryan Bulaga have been playing together up front for a while now, and all four ranked in the top 10 in PFF's pass-blocking grades. Lane Taylor has fit right in with that group, and while he hasn't been quite as strong in protection as his more experienced teammates, he has acquitted himself just fine.
If those guys give Rodgers time to throw against Atlanta's secondary, it's over. Rodgers is going to dominate, whether his top wideouts get back on the field or not. He's on that kind of roll right now. Even without No. 1 target Jordy Nelson last week, he lit up the Cowboys for 355 yards and two scores -- and he left a couple others on the field with uncharacteristically misplaced throws. (His one interception would've been a touchdown if he didn't overthrow his man by 5 yards into Jeff Heath's hands, for example.)
Oh, and he made one of the most absurd throws in playoff history when he unfurled a sideline-searing rocket while moving to his left in order to avoid pressure.
The Atlanta secondary has somewhat strangely performed better since losing top corner Desmond Trufant for the season, but it's still not exactly an elite unit. Give Rodgers' receivers time to get open, and they will get open. Even the best corners can only cover for so long, and Jalen Collins, Robert Alford and Brian Poole are not the best corners.
The ideal situation for Atlanta is being able to generate enough pressure so that Rodgers' throws aren't just bothered, but actively disrupted or prevented entirely. A lot of defensive coaches will tell you that pressure is just as good as a sack, but that hasn't been true against Rodgers of late. Give him a clean pocket and he'll just sit there and buy time waiting for someone to get open. Generate a moderate amount of pressure and he'll step up or roll out, giving his guys time to get open. The only way to stop him right now is to knock him on the ground before the ball ever leaves his hands.
The Falcons had one of the 10 highest-scoring offenses of all time this season, and they're well-equipped to win a shootout, but the way Rodgers is rolling right now, they're going to need some help from their defense in order to beat the Packers and advance to the Super Bowl. The best thing that defense can do is ramp up the pressure.