Playing against Aaron Rodgers makes Packers defense stronger
GREEN BAY — One thing has become abundantly clear through the first 10 days of training camp with the Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers has spent a lot of time facing off with the team’s No. 1 defensive unit — likely the most he has since he was backing up Brett Favre.
The two-time NFL MVP quarterback certainly noticed.
“It feels like it,” Rodgers said with a smile, rubbing his throwing shoulder for effect. “The old pitch count seems to be thrown out the window.”
There’s a method behind that madness, one that coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine believe will help the Packers defense be more successful against the proven quality quarterbacks (Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo, the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, New England’s Tom Brady, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan) as well as the less-accomplished ones on the schedule this year.
For the record, Rodgers, coming off the broken right collarbone that derailed last season, said his arm feels “fine.”
“My arm never really bothers me. It (just) seems like we’re taking a number of reps. In the past, where it may have been kind of 1s, 2s, 3s and then back to 1s (in the rotation), now it’s kind of like 1s and then 2s and then 1s and then 3s and 1s and then 2s. So it feels like we’ve taken a lot of reps.”
That’s because he has. After Family Night late Saturday night at Lambeau Field, McCarthy explained that he and Pettine, early in the interview process, determined that maxing out the defense’s work against one of the best quarterbacks in the game would have long-lasting benefits.
“An emphasis this year more than prior seasons was to get as much work with the 1s against the 1s. So if you’re keeping track of reps compared to the last couple seasons, our 1s have worked more against each other,” McCarthy said. “It’s really it’s twofold. No. 1, we had a lot of change on offense as far as concepts and things, and you want to give everybody more reps with that — even Aaron, to get the new footwork and things like that.
“But the main emphasis is for our defense to compete against Aaron as much as possible. That really goes back to the interview process. One of the top five points of emphasis I was looking for in our new defensive coordinator and speaking with Mike is, to play championship defense against a top 5 quarterback. So that’s why our numbers are reflected the way they are, and that’s why if you notice the way you have a Group 1 and a Group 2.”
Among the metrics former defensive coordinator Dom Capers liked to use for determining whether his defense was getting the job done was opponent quarterback rating. Because completion percentage, touchdowns and interceptions factor heavily into the equation to determine rating, Capers believed that a low opponent quarterback rating was more indicative of a top-flight pass defense than simply passing yards allowed, which can be skewed if an opponent has to take to the air while playing catch-up –— a frequent occurrence during those years when Rodgers and the offense were at the top of their collective game.
Last season, after giving up 30 touchdowns and intercepting just 11 passes, the Packers defense had an astronomical 102.0 opponent passer rating. In 2016, it was 95.5. In 2014, it was 82.0. And in 2010, when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, it was 67.2.
Capers’ early defenses were the best in the business at taking the ball away — the 2009 and ’10 defenses had a combined 54 regular-season interceptions — and that knack for creating turnovers more than made up for the times where the unit gave up big yardage numbers. In recent years, as the yards allowed went up and the takeaways went down — the 2016 and ’17 defenses had a combined 28 interceptions — the failings of Capers’ scheme became more evident.
So far in camp, Rodgers has thrown seven interceptions in 11-on-11 team periods, an unusually high number that is more indicative of Pettine’s defense showing him different wrinkles he hasn’t seen from previous defenses, which he tried to describe without using the word predictable.
“They’re just so multiple. They have a lot of different pressures and types of pressures. This may sound — I don’t know how it’s going to sound — they’re giving you pressures where they can actually get home. We haven’t had that issue in a while, where they scheme up pressures to have a free guy (pressuring the quarterback) on the play,” Rodgers explained. “Now, when we play against Minnesota, they do that. Some other teams (do that). But we haven’t had that with our defense before, so the protection elements for offense are really challenged by his defense, which is great for us. It’s great practice for us.
“And on the back end, they run a number of different coverages, so there’s different looks. We’re not just seeing the similar stuff, guys in stationary positions. They’re moving around, they’re disguising coverages … that changes everything.”
Which is the effect Pettine hopes to have on opposing quarterbacks, too. Pettine said in the early years of his scheme, he’d install 85 to 90 different defenses. These days, it’s 45 to 50, with the belief that less is more if executed correctly.
“What a gift we have on defense, to be able to go against one of the most elite quarterbacks to ever play the game,” Pettine said. “You talk about wearing ankle weights — that’s a tremendous thing for us. And for us to have that success, it’s a challenge for him. He’s not going against the same defense that he had gone against and maybe he got used to over years and years and years that he figured out. He’s still trying to figure us out, and there’s that element.
“I just love the competition part of it. It’s great when our guys can make a play, and I think that from the beginning of camp, that’s the bottom line: We’ve had some great competition.”