Pack back with bolstered defense, but MVP Rodgers the key
By Jarrett Bell, USA Today
~The beauty of Aaron Rodgers‘ game can be found in its tempo. He plays fast: a quick slant off a three-step drop, a bootleg connected to a crossing route, a tight back-shoulder fade.
Tempo. Rhythm. Precision.
Sometimes, the plays break down and the Green Bay Packers quarterback makes it happen anyway — scrambling, throwing darts on the run.
Rodgers was in such a zone last season — a career-high 4,643 passing yards with 45 touchdowns against only six interceptions, and an NFL single-season record 122.5 passer rating — that the Pack remained undefeated into mid-December, despite a suspect defense. He won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award in a landslide, capturing 48 of the 50 votes. Rodgers always had the MVP award on his to-do list.
“But I would trade that for a Super Bowl championship,” he says. “Obviously.”
Another shot at a championship is possible: The Packers open the season on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers as a heavy Super Bowl favorite. They’ll try to erase a painful 15-1 season.
Because after all of the success in 2011, Rodgers, 28, carries a vivid impression of what can happen when the tempo, rhythm and precision are off at the most inopportune moment. Green Bay‘s bid to repeat as Super Bowl champions ended with the thud of a playoff-opening loss to the New York Giants, making for an offseason of change.
The defense was shredded in the playoff debacle, victimized repeatedly by quarterback Eli Manning and receiver Victor Cruz. The running game provided so little help that Rodgers was the team’s leading rusher.
“It was tough to lose that way, and at home,” he said. “We didn’t play the kind of football that we had played in the first 16 games, making mistakes that we hadn’t made all year.”
After the devastating loss, Rodgers was eager to escape the NFL’s smallest market for his offseason retreat in California. Rodgers, who grew up in Chico, Calif., has a home in Del Mar.
“I had to get away from Green Bay,” he says, “just get away from the atmosphere. We have such incredible fans. They live and die with our wins and losses. It gets pretty depressing around town when you lose a game like that, and the season is over and it’s going to be seven or eight months before you get on the field again.
“Once I got back to California, I got a chance to refocus and build a strong resolve for this season.”
In the playoff loss, Rodgers was sacked four times and the Giants prevented big plays, clamping down on his receivers and allowing Rodgers one completion of 20 yards or more.
“As silly as it is, there’s a blueprint out there by the experts on how to beat us — which is really how to beat any team: Have a good pass rush, cover guys and force teams into third-and-long situations,” Rodgers says. “People think man coverage is the way to stop us now, and getting pretty good pressure with the front four.”
Opponents will continue to believe that until the Packers prove them wrong. Here’s how they’ll try: Rodgers tied an NFL record last season by throwing at least two TD passes in 13 consecutive games, and the hands that helped him achieve that mark are back. The mix includes receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, Randall Cobb and James Jones, with tight end Jermichael Finley.
“If we put four of those guys in the pass route against man-to-man coverage, one of those guys will win,” Rodgers said. “And the great thing we have here is the attitude. They know one game Greg might have a big game, and the next week he might only have a couple of catches, and Jordy or Jermichael might have a big game.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has checked his resolve, too. McCarthy, in his seventh year in Green Bay, said he needed to look himself in the mirror after the playoff loss. He said he can’t wait to use some of the plays he hoped to use during a Super Bowl run last season.
“Winter in Green Bay allows you a lot of time to be indoors, working on things,” Rodgers says. “But we’re always looking to tweak things, knowing that the plays we have on film from last year is how we’re going to be judged for the upcoming season. So being able to adapt is important, not only within a game but from season to season.”
“There are plays that helped us win a lot of games in ’08 and ’09 that we’ve barely run the past couple of years, because they were staple plays that teams adjusted to.”
The Packers need more than a playbook tuneup to get back into the Super Bowl hunt. The rushing game ranked 27th of 32 teams last season — no Green Bay back cracked 100 yards in a game last season.
Fittingly, McCarthy says that beyond learning a new terminology, Benson’s biggest adjustment will be to get into rhythm with Rodgers’ fast tempo.
Changes on defense are even more critical. The Packers ranked fifth in the NFL for overall defense in 2010, when they caught fire down the stretch and won the Super Bowl as a sixth-seeded wild card. Last season, the defense ranked last in the league for total yards and had the dubious distinction of allowing more passing yards in a single season than any unit in NFL history.
Green Bay used its first six draft picks to upgrade the defense, starting with first-rounder Nick Perry and second-round Michigan State defensive lineman Jerel Worthy. Perry is converting from defensive end at Southern Cal to an outside linebacker post in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme, opposite Clay Matthews.
“They’re going to have to feel their way because they’re going to play,” says veteran defensive back Charles Woodson, who is switching from cornerback to safety in the base defense. “Ain’t no time to be bringing them along slowly.”
Woodson refuses to sign off on the notion that there’s too much pressure on the quarterback to carry the team.
“A guy like Aaron can handle it,” he says. “I think he thoroughly enjoys it. I don’t think there’s enough pressure for Aaron.”
Pressure, of course, comes with the MVP territory. If the Packers are to rule the NFC North again, where the emerging Detroit Lions and re-tooled Chicago Bears lurk, they will do so with Rodgers leading the way.
Allen had three of his NFL-high 22 sacks last season against Rodgers, who is always one snap away from a big play. Rodgers has the NFL’s all-time best career passer rating at 104.1 (minimum 1,500 attempts) and doesn’t live merely by a dink-and-dunk approach. Since 2008, he has produced an NFL-best 150 completions of at least 25 yards.
“You’ve got to limit the explosive plays, make them drive down the field,” Allen says. “Because he’s that good, he’s going to give you some opportunities to make a play on the ball. He’ll try to put the ball in places that most quarterbacks wouldn’t think about putting it. That’s why he’s so good. You have to realize he’s going to hurt you with some passes. You’ve just got to try to limit the damage.”
‘A good, natural leader’
Rodgers knows he’s always a target, given the nature of his position. He was taken aback when his name surfaced in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. Rodgers began his MVP season in 2011 against the Saints (312 yards, 3 TDs), but never noticed anything that suggested foul play.
In its case against the Saints, the NFL produced an e-mail that included marketing agent Mike Ornstein declaring to former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams that Ornstein pledged $5,000 toward a bounty on Rodgers.
“Every time you step on the field, you know the defense is trying to disrupt your game and get after you and hit you a little bit, take you out of your game and get you thinking about the rush and the blitz,” Rodgers said.
“Anything to take your focus off what it should be, that’s their goal. Disruption and disguise. We understand that. That’s part of the game. But what isn’t part of the game is intentionally trying to hurt somebody for a payoff.”
Then there is the matter of being targeted from within — playfully. As Rodgers met with the media at his locker last week, fullback John Kuhn slipped through the pack and smashed the quarterback in the face with a shaving cream pie. Rodgers took it stride — “I respect the prank,” he says — but promised revenge.
Packers general manager Ted Thompson said the episode — and how Rodgers handled it — spoke volumes about the quarterback’s leadership. He wants to be one of the guys. Younger teammates talk of how Rodgers consoled them as they dealt with injuries, and he has built the type of solid relationship with his backup, Graham Harrell, that he did not have while serving as Brett Favre‘s understudy.
When Benson arrived during training camp, Rodgers implored the veterans to make the new running back feel welcome — and has spent one-on-one time with Benson to help him grasp the playbook.
“In some cases, leadership is a burden,” Thompson says. “In his case, he understands and welcomes it. He’s a good, natural leader.”
In fact, Rodgers says that’s at the heart of the legacy he hopes to leave. Championships and awards notwithstanding, he says that one of the truest measures of his success will be tied to the relationships he has with his teammates.
“When I’m done playing, I want them to say I was a good teammate,” he says.
Spoken like a true MVP.
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