It didn’t seem like a big deal - just a run-of-the-mill failed third down - but you will find no better microcosm of the current Aaron Rodgers-led Packers than a specific 3rd and 4 play from Sunday night’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings. It perfectly encapsulates just how poorly the quarterback has played, just how insane it is to not give more receivers more snaps, just how insane it is to not alter formations more frequently, and how scared Rodgers is these days. There is a lot to unpack on this play, but let’s start by watching the play in its entirety:
Rodgers eventually endures pressure on this play, but it is entirely of his own making. If you watch from the defensive view you will see the backs of 5 purple jerseys for a very long time. And it is only when he drops too far back, giving the right defensive end a better angle on David Bakhtiari, that things start to break down.
More importantly, Trevor Davis has flashed wide open in front of Rodgers before there’s even a hint of pressure.
Trevor Davis and the route
Davis is lined up outside at the top of the screen and he goes in motion just before the play starts, resetting close to Jared Cook. Randall Cobb is in the backfield with Jared Abbrederis (slot) and Jordy Nelson (wide) lined up at the bottom. Cook runs a medium crossing route drawing the attention of the right corner. Cobb, coming out of the backfield, is followed by the inside DB who was originally on Cook and appeared to call for a switch just before the snap. Cobb runs a short square in, but meanwhile, Davis is running a short underneath crossing route with only linebacker Eric Kendricks anywhere near him. The Vikings were in a single high safety look and brought pressure, so the secondary is stretched thin. Nelson runs a five yard in (or perhaps as stop-and-go), while Abbrederis runs a fly route, vacating the area. Kendricks follows Davis for just a split second, but Davis is never truly covered, and even if Kendricks had given chase, Davis would have easily outrun him. He is in a full sprint running across the field while Kendricks is squared in zone coverage. Once Davis has passed, Kendricks turns towards Cobb, cutting his route in the middle of the field, and leaving Davis as open as any player can be with nothing but safety Andrew Sendejo between him and the end zone.
Rodgers might be excused if the play was designed to go elsewhere, but he starts out looking in Davis’ direction, and the entire route seems designed to open the throw on the shallow cross. Cobb and Cook are both covered by quite a few Vikings, which should have been an indicator that someone else might be wide open. Instead of keeping calm and hitting the shallow cross, Rodgers hastily retreats, at which point the play is basically doomed. I think he’s frantically looking for Nelson at that point, but Nelson, who was also open for a second earlier in the play, has noticed his teammate running uncovered in his direction. He makes a few quick moves to work free again, but eventually engages in blocking.
This is a great play, and something I wish we would see more of. Abbrederis only saw 6 snaps all game, and Davis just 5. The Packers currently carry 7 receivers, but despite the depth they lineup with just Nelson, Cobb, and Adams in a 3 receiver set the vast majority of the time. The Vikings definitely show early signs of confusion on the play and wind up blowing an underneath coverage, which is just what the doctor ordered on 3rd and short. McCarthy drew up another excellent play on the touchdown to Nelson that used a similar concept to clear space, and it worked. I would love to know what Rodgers saw on this play that caused him to react as he did, but the fear is worrisome.
I suspect the issue with Rodgers goes beyond bad habits. It’s tough to break a bad habit once it becomes ingrained, but it’s not impossible. Pitchers routinely lose their arm-slots and feel, and coaches fix them. Last season, timing routes, let’s call them “discipline routes,” didn’t work. Rodgers had to improvise to make the team go, and he did so repeatedly. The thing is, improvising is fun. If you play schoolyard ball for a year and then go back to drop-and-throw, progression-reading discipline, it’s not as fun. Rodgers keeps trying to extend plays, to make bigger things happen. Those are great as occasional bailouts, but terrible if they are such a staple of the offense that defenses plan for it. Rodgers is playing scared, and this might not end any time soon.