The 36-yard rocket Aaron Rodgers unleashed to Jared Cook on 3rd and 20 in Sunday’s Divisional matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys will go down in NFL Playoff lore – and rightfully so. The absurdity of a quarterback rolling to his left then firing across his body with that type of velocity and precision in a crucial moment is the stuff of legends. That type of throw has become commonplace for those that have watched Rodgers over the years, but in this instance – given the stakes of the game and the run he has been on during the Packers’ eight-game winning streak after being on the verge of playoff elimination – was magical.
But even in that moment of astonishment, I wondered: Could it have been prevented if the Cowboys’ approached the series differently? The final drive of five plays wasn’t taking place in a vacuum. Instead it was Cowboys’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, Packers’ head coach and play-caller Mike McCarthy, and Rodgers attempting to condense all the information acquired about each other in previous matchups and more importantly, during the first 59 minutes of this game, to scheme against the opposition for victory.
Taking over at their own 25-yard line, Green Bay needed to gain 46 yards with two timeouts to get into field goal range, based on the fact kicker Mason Crosby nailed a 56-yard field goal just a minute earlier. Neither team decided to shake up their personnel or formation very much on the drive
Green Bay Packers
QB – #12 Aaron Rodgers
RB – #88 Ty Montgomery
TE – #89 Jared Cook
Alignment: Shotgun Trips Right, 3 X 1 alignment with Geronimo Allison, Randall Cobb, and Jared Cook on the right and Davante Adams split out wide left, RB Ty Montgomery lined up next to Rodgers in the backfield.
With both teams coming out in essentially the same personnel and formation on each play, the differences came in how Marinelli decided to blitz and roll coverage and how the Packers adjusted to what was thrown at them.
1st and 10, 0:36 remaining, GB ball at the GB 25
The Packers attempted to bite off a big chunk right at the jump. The Cowboys showed blitz with their linebackers but only rushed three, while one linebacker spied the quarterback and the other kept tabs on Ty Montgomery who stayed in to block. Rodgers tried to hit Jared Cook up the seam from his inside slot position. With the Cowboys showing Cover 2 Man, the middle of the field would be open. Cook faced off against the versatile Byron Jones in press man coverage who played him head up. Cook was able to get a clean outside release off the line, but no separation as Jones stayed with him stride-for-stride. Because of Jones’s tight coverage, Rodgers attempted a back-shoulder throw to use the defender’s momentum against him. Cook was able to get his head around and the throw was there for a potential 20-yard gain, but the tight end was unable to pull it down. There was some early contact from Jones, but in a game like this, it was too close to call.
2nd and 10, 0:30 remaining, GB ball at the GB 25
The Cowboys came out showing Cover 2 Man, but that ended up being just window dressing. Both linebackers again showed blitz, and this time, Sean Lee actually blitzed from the strong side of the offensive formation along with Byron Jones. Jones, who was once again head up on Jared Cook, passed off man coverage responsibility to safety Barry Church as safety Jeff Heath dropped to the deep middle of the field as a single-high safety. Like the last play, when the Packers were ready to combat the Cowboys passive rush, they were ready for the blitz. A screen to Montgomery was set up to the weak side of the formation catching the Cowboys outnumbered as they blitzed two and covered three on the opposite side. The Dallas player in the best position to make a play was linebacker Justin Durant. But due to his showing blitz then retreating on the snap, he was caught flat-footed long enough for center Corey Linsley to reach him and make a critical block on a 17-yard gain that stopped the clock as Montgomery went out of bounds.
1st and 10, 0:23 remaining, GB ball at the GB 42
Above we get a look at the alignment for both teams on this 1st down. The Packers setup is the same they have had through the first three plays of this series. The Cowboys on the other hand have made a slight alteration. Cook is left uncovered in the right slot while Heath has lined up just outside defensive end Tyrone Crawford showing blitz. Durant is also showing blitz over guard Lane Taylor suggesting the Cowboys are again overloading one side, but this time the weak side of the formation.
What transpired was a total breakdown by the Packers due to what Marinelli and the Cowboys threw at them. Heath’s movement to the weak side of the formation and threat of a blitz altered their protection. In previous plays of this drive, they had to account for the threat of Durant who showed each time. Now Taylor and Bakhtiari (Linsley still covered head up by Irving) had to account for three potential pass rushers. On the snap, Taylor was prepared to deal with a Durant blitz, but he dropped off – meaning Bakhtiari was on an island with two potential pass rushers. The Packers’ left tackle made the call to deal with Tyrone Crawford and let Heath attack to his outside. But that wasn’t his problem.
The real problem is Ty Montgomery’s split-second indecisiveness. As Heath blitzed on one side, cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who has been defending Randall Cobb in the slot on the strong side is being deployed in a blitz as well. On the snap, the Cowboys make sure to account for all Packers’ receivers as Lee defends Cook, Jones rotates down to cover Cobb once again transforming the Cowboys’ Cover 2 into a Cover 1, and Scandrick was free to attack the quarterback. With Scandrick and Heath on the way, it appears based on the how the Packers’ offensive line blocked it up that Montgomery should have been crossing Rodgers’ face to block Heath and protect his quarterback’s blind side. But in a moment of hesitation as he turned his head to see both pass rusher’s coming, Montgomery showed his inexperience at the position and as a young player in the league. Rodgers was dropped for a 10-yard loss and somehow held onto the ball. Timeout Packers.
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2nd and 20, 0:18 remaining, GB ball at the GB 32
With the result of the last play, the Packers have moved Montgomery from Rodgers’ right to his left to account for any backside attackers. The Cowboys are back in their straight Cover 2 man alignment with only the linebackers showing pressure. On the snap, the Cowboys rush three but get a tremendous push up the middle from David Irving who bullies Corey Linsley which flushes Rodgers to hs right. As in most of this drive, the Packers’ receivers are unable to create much separation. Part of this due to the excellent effort of the Cowboys’ defensive backs and part of it is due to the ongoing problem of the Packers’ relying on isolation routes instead of scheming their receivers open.
Geronimo Allison takes an outside release, running a go route up the sideline to occupy his man and to get the attention of the deep safety. It looks like the #1 read on this play was Randall Cobb. With the safety occupied, Cobb had a favorable matchup with Scandrick and needed to get a big enough chunk to allow a reasonable third down following the sack. The wide receiver runs an out initially and appears to have a window for Rodgers to get a throw in, but instead heads up field after his quarterback is flushed, a common practice when things go awry in the pocket. Cook, running a similar route to Cobb, but from closer to the middle of the field, carries out his route to the sideline and creates a window for Rodgers. Rodgers delivers a rocket right on his receiver close to the sticks, but the pass ricochets off Cook’s facemask and the Packers are faced with a lengthy third down.
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3rd and 20, 0:12 remaining, GB ball at the GB 32
As aggressive and creative as Marinelli had been leading up to this third down play, he completely abandoned that approach here. Only five Cowboys are within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, all receivers are uncovered, and the defense appears content to sit back and give Rodgers time. The Packers still need 29 yards just to get back into a range where Crosby can attempt another mammoth boot from 56 yards. The cornerbacks are 8 yards off the ball and the safeties 25-30 yards.
At the snap, Rodgers turns and rolls to his left. Dallas appears to be in a Cover 4 deep with zone coverage underneath, essentially prevent defense. Left guard Lane Taylor peels off to the left with Rodgers as his personal protector against an oncoming Justin Durant, who is serving as the quarterback’s spy. The setup was almost exactly like the play in last year’s divisional matchup against Arizona where Rodgers again rolled to his left with the left guard peeling off to protect him as he uncorked a 60-yard bomb to Jeff Janis. The difference here being the Cowboys sitting back in a prevent defense. As he plants to throw, it appears Cobb in the middle is his main target. But linebacker Sean Lee’s drop in the middle third of the field has taken this away. As Rodgers continues to look downfield and drift to his left, Jared Cook, like the previous play in which the ball hit off his facemask, has carried his deep crossing route to the sideline instead of breaking it off. Cornerback Byron Jones, in a case of “there’s no way he can fit a ball precisely down the sideline”, takes a doze he probably wishes he hadn’t. Rodgers squeezes the ball 36 yards with the flick of a wrist into the only area Cook can get his feet in bounds.
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When word leaked out shortly after this game that Rodgers had indeed drawn this play up in the huddle, it wasn’t his ability to communicate his directives in a short period of time that was impressive. These are guys that work tirelessly each week to get on the same page, including two veterans in Cobb and Adams that have been with the Packers for at least three years. They understand routes and what Rodgers wants them to do better than any of us ever will. The thing that impressed me the most was the Packers’ ability to execute against a defense they probably didn’t expect to see here. The expectation when calling this play was that the Cowboys would stick with what worked. Dallas had success starting with a Cover 2 look, tight man coverage, disguising blitzes, and mixing up looks post-snap, thus getting the Packers’ out of rhythm. At second glance, the coverage by the Cowboys is superb and Rodgers has nowhere to go with the ball aside from a small sliver up the sideline to a tight end that has crossed from one side of the field to the other. Maybe Marinelli was right and the Cowboys just were victims of a once in a lifetime throw. But in a situation with only a precious few seconds on the clock, the Cowboys gave Rodgers and the Packers something better than the coverage they were expecting: the gift of time.