In the first quarter of the Green Bay Packers' 27-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 20, one play epitomized the brilliance of quarterback Aaron Rodgers ― and the difficulty teams have game planning for him.
It was second and 15 on the Seahawks' 29-yard line. Seattle only brought four pass rushers against the Packers' three-wide look, which means there were plenty of defenders in coverage. What's more, the Seahawks' two excellent edge rushers ― Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett ― collapsed the pocket with speed rushes.
A lesser quarterback might have sensed the pressure, as Rodgers did, evaded the rush and simply thrown to receiver Randall Cobb, who was wide open ― and directly in the quarterback's view ― about 10 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. It would have been a nice play: a first down, and the drive would remain alive.
But Rodgers is not like most quarterbacks. His pocket awareness, arm strength and accuracy embolden him to make throws other quarterbacks can't make. So as he sprinted to his left to evade the rush, he kept his eyes downfield and saw James Jones downfield on a post route, with a step on one of the game's best corners, Richard Sherman.
With his momentum going to his left, Rodgers planted on his right foot and fired a missile right between Sherman and Earl Thomas ― one of the game's rangiest safeties. Touchdown, Packers.
Afterwards, all Seattle coach Pete Carroll could do was tip his cap.
“On that play as he moved to the left, he drew Earl, Earl went with him, and then in a flash turned and stuck it and got it in between Richard,” Carroll said. “That was a great throw, it was a great throw. He knew what he was doing.
“I had said during the week that you don’t always see him utilize the big arm that he has, because so much of his passing is touch stuff. But when he needs it, he’s got a great release and a great hose, and he showed it on that one.”
The Chiefs, to be sure, were watching. And they know that if they hope to topple the Packers on Monday Night Football, at Lambeau Field, no less ― where Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception since 2012 ― they will need to somehow minimize plays like this, even if it's not clear what the Seahawks could have done different.
“He’s a great player, so we know he’s going to make some plays — that’s what great players do,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It’s important that you do just that — you contain him in the best way you possibly can. Obviously, we’re not going to tell you the strategy of it, but you’ve got to give that a whirl, right? Try to do the best you can.”
But while Reid and the Chiefs weren't prepared to go into detail about how you stop a Super Bowl-winning quarterback like Rodgers ― who, at age 31, is still at the peak of his powers ― there are some basic tactics they will try.
Like, for instance, disguising coverages and giving him different fronts.
“You try to give him movement and looks, (but) he’s seen about everything you can do,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He’s played enough snaps at quarterback in the National Football League (that) I don’t think you’re going to confuse him very long.”
That will likely leave the Chiefs hoping to frustrate him on a few occasions, and trying to take advantage in those instances.
“Like all these guys that are in this category, you just hope that maybe he holds (the ball) just a click longer, that’s what you’re looking for,” Sutton said. “You have to be tight, you have to play him tight, you have to get a lot of people around the football.”
In the latter regard, Sutton is referring to the importance tackling will play in Monday's game. The Packers feature three interchangeable receivers in Cobb, Jones and Davante Adams — though the latter is questionable with an ankle injury — all of whom can rack up yards after the catch.
“They’re a great catch-and-run team, they get the ball out fast, catch it and catch some short passes and turn them into big passes – that’s one part of their system,” Sutton said. “The main thing is to cap those (short passes) off — you don’t want him to turn a five-yard pass into a 20-yard pass. That challenges everybody on our defense.”
Especially the defensive backs, who not only have to tackle well, but also have to stick with their receivers longer than they would for other quarterbacks because of Rodgers' ability to elude pressure and buy time for his receivers.
“He gets to scrambling back there in the pocket, and for defenses, it's hard to run with their man for 10-12 seconds,” safety Ron Parker said. “So as a defense, we’ve got to stay close to our man on the back end after he gets outside the pocket. It’s tough.”
Inside linebacker Josh Mauga is impressed with Rodgers' ability to keep his eyes downfield under pressure, which allows him to see open targets.
“It's rare,” Mauga said.
And if the main threat of throwing the ball wasn't scary enough, Rodgers also excels at the little things, like using a hard count to draw defenders offsides. Rodgers, for instance, drew Bennett ― Seattle's outstanding edge rusher ― offsides with it three times in their last game.
“It’s just a mechanism to slow down the defense a little bit,” Rodgers said. “It’s something that each quarterback has their own cadence and rhythm. Guys start trying to time that and occasionally jump out offsides.”
Not only does this tactic stem the pass rush, it also leads to free big-play opportunities. Once the Packers draw a defender offside, it's not uncommon for Rodgers to chuck the ball deep, in hopes of connecting with one of his big-play receivers or drawing a pass interference penalty.
The Packers ended up declining all three offsides penalties against Bennett — two long completions and a pass-interference penalty rendered them moot.
“We've got to watch the ball, bottom line,” outside linebacker Tamba Hali said. “We can’t feed into the gyrations, the talking. Quarterbacks are good at it, and as much as we want to get them off rhythm, they have to do the same for us.”
But for all of Rodgers' greatness ― the guy has been averaging a 65.9 completion percentage, 4,036 yards, 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions per season since 2008 ― the Chiefs do have some things going for them.
Their pass rush is strong, led by Justin Houston, who has recorded a sack in eight straight games and is one of the league's premier edge rushers. And the interior rush ― led by the emerging young trio of Allen Bailey, Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard ― is better than most teams can field against the Packers.
So while Rodgers is difficult to sack, there is hope that by controlling their pass-rush lanes, they can “affect” him more than other teams and then try to anticipate where he's throwing in time to break up passes.
“You’ve got to rush this guy — if you don’t rush him he’s really hard,” Sutton said. “He just makes it more difficult and you just have to have awareness as a defense. What’s going on? Where’s he at? And what’s he likely to do right here? That’s easy to say and very hard to do, and I think everybody in our league would echo that thought.”
But even if you take away the pass, you still have to worry about the threat of Rodgers scrambling.
“I think he’s already got 14 carries this year and (he ran) whatever he ran last year, (6.3 yards) per carry, so he’s a legitimate (rush) guy,” Sutton said. “And when he comes out (of the pocket) he’s going to come out mostly to pass, but if you give him a huge lane, he’s going to take it and he can make some yards fast.”