The Packers punished the Patriots for minding the gaps and quarterback Aaron Rodgers carved up the defense whether there was a spy or not. This is no surprise – Rodgers is the best quarterback in football. But 11 seconds? Brian Filipiak explains what happened.
In a showdown between two elite offenses, the Green Bay Packers edged out the New England Patriots, 26-21, at Lambeau Field in Week 13. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense dominated the game, holding the ball for 36 minutes, scoring on their first five possessions, and gaining nearly 500 total yards. Only stingy red zone defense from the Patriots kept the outcome of the game hanging in the balance until the very end. But Rodgers was nearly unstoppable between the 20s no matter how New England attacked the All-Pro quarterback.
The game plan emphasized maintaining rush lane integrity in order to limit Rodgers’ ability to extend plays outside the pocket. However, the Patriots pass rush was often caught between a rock and a hard place – balancing their effort to collapse the pocket with gap control priority.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia dialed up only three 5-man rushes in the game, fearing both Rodgers’ quick decision-making and release as well as his ability to evade pressure and escape the pocket for big gains on the ground. Rodgers turned those three blitz attempts into three completions for 56 yards, including the backbreaking 45-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jordy Nelson just before the half.
The Patriots rushed three defenders or less (twice rushing just two) on 17 of the 43 dropbacks they faced. The extra defenders in coverage did little to deter Rodgers as he completed 10 of 14 passes and added 26 yards with his legs, averaging 8 yards per play.
On at least six occasions, New England used a spy on Rodgers in an effort to curtail his scrambling ability. However, in the one instance the spy design intersected a Rodgers run, the quarterback blew past the defender (defensive end / linebacker Rob Ninkovich) for a 9-yard gain to pick up a first down in the early stages of the third quarter.
Nothing can be more frustrating for a defense than a well covered pass play that ends in a huge gain on the ground by the quarterback, like this play midway through the first quarter on 2nd and 18:
It’s important to note that once guard T.J. Lang (#70) crosses the line of scrimmage, there is only one legal receiver available to Rodgers – the running back while behind the line of scrimmage. However, defensive tackle Chris Jones reads the potential screen pass, removing the option from Rodgers.
Of course, the QB never even looks to the screen side (and, in turn, likely never sees his lineman downfield). Linebacker Donta’ Hightower, who has coverage underneath and flat responsibilities, drifts toward the running back and the ineligible Lang.
While this doesn’t appear to be a designed QB run, the route combinations and fake screen combine to create enormous running room in the middle of the field for Rodgers. He picks up 17 yards, setting up a 3rd and 1 that Green Bay would convert.
It could be argued that the real mistake here is by Jones, who abandons his rush lane and opens the gate for Rodgers. But perhaps quicker recognition of the lineman downfield by the defenders, in particular by Hightower and cornerback Brandon Browner, could have limited the gain.
Where’s The Rush?
One wrinkle employed by the Patriots defense throughout the contest involved disguising the pass rush. This concept is used on Hightower’s sack in the second quarter where a 3-man rush had Ninkovich and Ayers dropping into coverage.
Linebacker Jamie Collins’s sack in the third quarter came on a similar design using a 4-man rush. In all, Collins (5 pass rushes, 2 hurries, 1 sack) and Hightower (8 pass rushes, 1 hurry, 1 sack) rushed the passer 13 times.
However, Rodgers also exploited these pressure schemes by locating and targeting the mismatched defender in coverage against a much speedier skill player:
The Patriots send Collins as the fourth rusher, leaving Ninkovich responsible for covering running back James Starks out of the backfield. As shown above, Rodgers faces not only zero pressure but a complete lack of contain, allowing him room to rollout to the right after recognizing that the crossing routes underneath were blanketed.
Ninkovich does all he can in man coverage, pinning Starks along the sideline while staying no less than a half-step behind the intended receiver. But with safety Devin McCourty late to provide help over the top, Rodgers – who again is allowed nearly four seconds to throw – delivers a beautiful pass on the run that is corralled by Starks for a 28-yard gain.
Perhaps the more athletic Collins, instead of Ninkovich, makes a difference in coverage on this play. But the failure to stay in the assigned lanes and keep Rodgers contained – a clear game plan emphasis – allows the QB to extend the play outside the pocket.
When An Incomplete Pass Just Isn’t Enough
It’s not often an incomplete pass would be considered a negative play for the defense (or a positive one for the offense), but this may be one of those rare cases. While the important completion noted above pushed the Packers near midfield, allowing Rodgers to eventually connect with Nelson for a touchdown, this forgotten play before the end of the half shown below was damaging in a more subtle way:
While the pocket collapses around Rodgers, particularly along the edges, the quarterback uses his awareness and agility to create an opening by jab stepping up the middle before quickly bouncing back and rolling right.
The flash inside forces Ninkovich to commit inside, lose outside contain, and get pancaked by right tackle Bryan Bulaga (#75), allowing Rodgers to escape Ayers from the blind side. The end result is an incomplete pass on a well defended play by cornerback Darrelle Revis. But instead of a potential series-altering sack, Rodgers’s ability to avoid pressure and stop the clock keeps the drive going, with the very next play resulting in the Nelson touchdown.
The Patriots’ inability to “get home” on Rodgers – or even impact the quarterback’s timing and accuracy – proved to be a constant, futile struggle. While some quarterbacks will take their offensive linemen out for a steak dinner to thank them for their protection, it’s quite likely they will all agree to split the bill after this one:
If not for safety Patrick Chung’s decision to abandon coverage responsibilities and bring pressure up the middle, it’s likely Rodgers would have run out the game clock on this play. The above video again shows the game plan emphasis on controlling rush lanes instead of an all out pursuit of Rodgers.
While ultimately harmless due to the incomplete pass, the overemphasis on controlling rush lanes for Rodgers put tremendous pressure on the coverage to hold up for 11 seconds before Chung and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork finally forced the throwaway.
Get Well Soon
With the game on the line on a crucial 3rd and 4 in the final minutes, the Patriots defense needed a stop to provide another chance for the offense to take the lead. But the failure to pressure Rodgers allowed an initially well-covered play to fall to pieces:
Looking for wide receiver Randall Cobb on the slant route, Rodgers is forced to hang onto the ball an extra second as Hightower – eyeing the QB – has coverage underneath. With pressure around but once again unable to disrupt Rodgers, the quarterback re-sets and unloads as soon as Cobb finds space behind Hightower, fitting the ball into tight coverage for the game sealing completion. Almost 4.5 seconds have elapsed by the time Rodgers releases the ball.
The four-man rush, which turns into three once Wilfork abandons pursuit to the QB, simply fails to generate pressure. Three one-on-one match-ups in front of Rodgers and not one New England defender (Ninkovich, Jones and Ayers) can get off a block to disrupt the pass attempt.
It’s a play like this where the absence of the Patriots best pure pass rusher, Chandler Jones, can be felt.
Closing It Out
On the surface, allowing 26 points to the Packers, on their turf, lends the impression that the Patriots defense performed well. And while their efforts in the red zone should be lauded, their difficulties in getting off the field cost them points, time, and opportunities for Tom Brady and the offense to respond. The defensive breakdowns and inability to make a play at the end of the first half served as a microcosm for the issues throughout the game, while the consistent failure to win one-on-one battles along the line of scrimmage made life all too easy for Rodgers. In the end, the Packers punished the Patriots for minding the gaps.
If the Patriots are to meet the Packers in the Super Bowl, a game plan change will be required. While an emphasis on rush lane integrity is understandable, the New England coaching staff will need to devise a more dynamic pressure scheme – linebackers rushing up the middle when paired with perimeter containment seemed to cause the biggest obstacles for Rodgers and his offensive line. But, no matter the adjustments made, individual performances need to be much better in a potential rematch in order for the Patriots defense to have a chance to slow down the Packers offense.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.