Early in the second half against the Chicago Bears, Aaron Rodgers nearly fell over trying to plant on a balky left knee to make a throw. A few plays later, he dropped an all-time throw into a window the size of a coffee cup for a 39-yard Geronimo Allison touchdown, the first trip to the end zone for the Green Bay Packers on their way to a 24-23 comeback victory.
The talking point about a Rodgers-led offense with his injured knee called for quick passes. Get the ball out of his hands and let the receivers do the rest. Intuitively, it makes sense — Davante Adams possesses outstanding after-the-catch ability, as does Randall Cobb. Lance Kendricks and Jimmy Graham have the speed to create space from linebackers in the open field to pick up yardage. Ditto for Ty Montgomery.
But with Rodgers and the Packers needing to come back in the second half, and the Bears knowing it could only happen on the arm of Green Bay’s Marvel-level superhero, there was no dink and dunk offense.
In fact, Rodgers held the ball more or less like he always does, he simply didn’t dance around or escape the pocket. Instead, he moved subtly to create space and found open receivers. On the long touchdown to Allison, he looked to his left to hold the safety, hitched, and delivered down the field with seemingly no issues physically. The protection held up and he had a clean pocket from which to throw.
On the Cobb touchdown, he stepped up and slid left in the pocket to create an angle and give his receivers time to get open. If the Packers offensive line protects this week the way they did against the Bears in the second half, Rodgers should still have opportunities down the field and it only takes a handful of throws.
And when he had time against a game Chicago defense, Rodgers delivered. On 15 of his 33 dropbacks, he held the ball for 2.5 seconds or more before throwing, among the fewest in the NFL in Week 1. But it only took a few plays to make the difference. On those 15 drops, he went 7/12 with all three of his touchdowns and a 142.4 passer rating, the best in the league for Week 1 on plays where the QB held the ball.
His completion percentage was worse on those plays, as he went 13/18 on throws under 2.5 seconds and posted a passer rating under 90. He just wasn’t as efficient on quick passes. But that’s OK when you hit on the shot plays, risks the Packers have to take in order to win.
Plus, not all of them have to come off holding the ball. On the 51-yard catch-and-run from Davante Adams, the ball was out quickly and Adams simply did the rest. It was about a 15-yard throw that Adams turned into a huge play. The third-and-14 conversion to Allison on a critical drive came on an on-time throw from Rodgers on a 15-yard dig route with great play design from Mike McCarthy and company.
Against an aggressive Vikings secondary, the 49ers showed the most effectiveness through the air using misdirection and playing Minnesota’s own speed against them. Jimmy Garoppolo finished just 10/20 with two picks on throws of 10 yards or fewer. If the line can hold, there are plays to be made down the field, as the Eagles and Saints showed in the playoffs last year.
Against the Bears, Rodgers averaged 9.4 intended air yards per attempt, an indication the Packers were trying to push the ball down the field. On some short distances to gain, Green Bay ran some of its patented short game stuff to pick up first downs and keep drives alive, but Rodgers was looking to make plays down the field.
On Sunday, against a better, deeper pass rush and a ball-hawking secondary, the Packers will have to find a balance. Look downfield, buy a little time if possible, and if nothing is there either dump it off or toss it out of bounds to live to play another down. Rodgers knows that. He’s played hurt before.
It’s a challenge Rodgers and the Packers have faced down and handled in the past. In 2016, the last time he played against Minnesota at home, Rodgers sliced up the Vikings defense for 347 yards and 4 TDs with plenty of big plays. Jordy Nelson averaged over 17 yards per catch and Allison 16.5. This isn’t the same Vikings team, but it’s also not that different.
The difference is Rodgers’ health. His mobility will prevent him from getting out of the pocket, escaping pressure, and pulling off the kind of wizardry we’ve come to expect, but he was pinpoint with his accuracy in the second half against the Bears playing on one leg. He showed he can look into the teeth of pressure and not flinch without resorting exclusively to a three-step drop.
This is true whether Rodgers is injured or not. The Packers have to take shots down the field to keep defenses honest. They hit on those plays against the Bears and won. If they hit on them against the Vikings, they can win. If they don’t, a healthy Rodgers may not have made much of a difference. Getting the ball out quickly as a plan doesn’t have to mean throwing it short and it doesn’t mean only firing quickly. But putting it in the plan could encourage McCarthy to utilize more of his plays that scheme receivers open, an aid they’ll need at times against a sticky cornerback group.
Ultimately, the success of the offense will hinge on how well the line blocks and how well the receivers can get open, not the health of Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay must still let him be who he is and try to push the ball down the field.