Three plays separated a good day from an ugly one for Aaron Rodgers. As is often the case in the NFL, the margin is truly that painfully thin. Luckily for the Packers, they won anyway against a struggling opponent with a rookie quarterback thanks to Aaron Jones and the defense. If that sounds an awful lot like how Green Bay won earlier in the season, that’s because it is, but now in December, what is going on to keep this offense from clicking?
After the game, Matt LaFleur offered two different versions of “If I knew, it wouldn’t be happening,” after opening his post-game remarks chastising his team for how much it left on the field offensively. Bryan Bulaga used almost that exact phrasing when describing what’s going on.
Aaron Jones cruised, Jimmy Graham got involved, the offensive line posted a season-best 92% pass block win rate according to ESPN, yet the offense went into hibernation after going up 14-0, only to re-emerge in the fourth quarter when they needed to seal the game. Much of this falls on Rodgers’ shoulders, but how much? I went back through the tape to find out.
If three plays separated good from bad, what about the other plays?
Of Rodgers’ 10 incompletions, at least four were drops or a receiver in the wrong place. That includes a red zone play where Jace Sternberger ran himself out of being open — Rodgers put the ball where he thought the rookie should sit down in coverage — and another where it appeared Davante Adams ran the wrong route. Two were flat drops, with Adams’ coming on a crucial late third down.
Those plays aren’t necessarily on Rodgers, but plenty of the rest were. We’ll get to the momentous mistakes momentarily but too often the two-time MVP reverted to some backyard tendencies and ran into trouble, both literal and metaphoric. Excellent coverage most of the day from Washington and a more-than-capable pass rush disrupted the timing and made Rodgers uncomfortable in the pocket, but too often Rodgers created the disruption for himself.
On a 3rd-and-9 in the first half, Rodgers got antsy in a clean pocket and nearly threw an interception when he never saw the underneath defender. Later in the half, Rodgers again bailed from a clean pocket and ran right into a sack. These are plays that worked once upon a time because he was younger and more athletic, and had better weapons to make second-reaction plays. They don’t work in 2019 with this iteration of the team.
Despite a chorus of complaints Rodgers held the ball too much, that didn’t drive the four sacks Washington put up on Sunday. On a 3rd-and-4 play, Ryan Kerrigan pushed Bryan Bulaga right into Rodgers’ lap. Neither Geronimo Allison nor Adams were open on the slant and by the time Rodgers came off, he had big No. 91 grabbing his shoulder pads. In the fourth quarter, neither Billy Turner nor Bryan Bulaga blocked Matt Ioannidis, who was in Rodgers lap in 1.71 seconds. And on a screen pass Washington blew up, David Bakhtiari got walked right into Aaron Rodgers to the point that went he turned around off the play-action fake, the play was already a mess.
These types of errors have been too common this season, while also representing a stark departure from previous years when the Packers consistently walled off defenders on the edge with Bulaga and Bakhtiari.
All of this is to say, outside of the big three plays, spread the blame relatively evenly among receivers, offensive line, and Rodgers when it comes to incompletions and sacks. That’s important as we look at these plays because it’s a reminder that Rodgers is probably right to say he he hits one or both of the shots, we are talking about this game very differently.
After the game, Rodgers said if they hit this, we all feel differently about the day. Maybe. Horseshoes and hand grenades though.— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) December 9, 2019
He missed two would-be touchdowns on beautiful play designs. pic.twitter.com/K3o1GtCcd9
This is nearly perfect in its execution. The play-action fake fools nearly the entire Washington defense in the perfect position for a chunk play in plus territory on first down. This is it. That is what you want Matt LaFleur to be doing.
Rodgers turns, sets and fires. It’s just a miss. Up 14-0 already, if they hit this, it’s a three-score game even if they have to settle for a field goal, and we remember Jimmy Graham’s breakout day for this offense. They’re finding ways to make him effective, so let’s not lose sight of that part of this. If Graham can be a useful player in the postseason, especially in these scenarios, that elevates the Packers offense in ways we haven’t seen since Jared Cook.
This is the kind of play that drives @BenFennell_NFL crazy: Rodgers looking right at Adams who wins on the release. Rodgers ALMOST throws it to him twice, then fades into pressure a terrible sack/fumble he never feels coming.— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) December 9, 2019
This is a brutal play from 12. pic.twitter.com/WCUgrrz8cH
For all the talk about the two missed throws, this play can’t be left out. It’s 1st-and-10 just outside thee red zone. At worst, this is well within Mason Crosby’s field goal range. Going into halftime 17-6 getting the ball out of half would be quite a different animal. Instead, Rodgers, possibly fooled by the coverage, fails to pull the trigger to Adams despite an early win off the release.
Even after the initial play, Rodgers stays glued to him, fading into pressure he can’t feel. He does the only thing a quarterback can’t do in this scenario: take a sack/fumble. If he fires right away, he’s got a chance to hit Adams in the sweet spot between the cornerback and safety, but he hesitates and it turns into a turnover. Luckily for the Packers, Adrian Amos turned it right back and Rodgers’ fumble here doesn’t cost them.
The last one will be what keeps Rodgers up at night.
Forget the playclock winding down. No pressure. Clean pocket to step into to throw to a wide open RB for a touchdown.— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) December 9, 2019
Backfoot, off-platform airmail. This was 2018 in microcosm. pic.twitter.com/7ppzwVtBOw
Washington had just cut the score to 17-9 and the Packers offense couldn’t generate much of anything most of the second half. On 3rd-and-9, Matt LaFleur throws it back to the Chiefs game, trying to get Aaron Jones isolated on a linebacker or a safety for a sluggo. They get exactly what they want with Landon Collins on Jones, who proceeds to cook the highest paid safety in football for what would have been a walk-in touchdown.
For reasons completely unrelated to pressure, Rodgers slings this one off his back foot and airmails Jones. There is a little contact with Collins as Jones runs by him, but if Rodgers sets and steps into the throw, it’s one of the easiest pitch-and-catch plays he’d have all day. This looks too much like last year.
What makes this particularly frustrating is the play late in the game, on 3rd-and-14, they again get a great Jones loose in the Washington secondary and Rodgers hits him on an absolute laser shot to convert on a drive that ultimately pushed the margin to two scores, effectively ending the game.
Where Rodgers says he's happy to win ugly all the way to the Super Bowl, this is what he means. Bad day for him, but when they absolutely need a play, he makes a beautiful one.— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) December 9, 2019
How many times has Tom Brady won a game that way? pic.twitter.com/z5ouiL9LlT
If he’d made that throw two other times, we’re probably talking about a 30-point day and another win over a bad team. Instead, Rodgers missed them, and compounded it with an indecisive play leading to a turnover.
After the game Sunday, Rodgers said “It feels good to be on that side, where you’re answering questions about how can you be more dynamic after a win, rather than, ‘What the hell’s wrong with the team?’”
Right now, this is the difference between a good day and bad for Rodgers, and by extension the offense. When he hits these, they’re doing enough with the run game to be a good offense. When he doesn’t, they don’t have enough answers right now.
In the NFL, the rule is players not plays. Going from Mike McCarthy to Matt LaFleur wasn’t going to change the entire world for the Packers offense because most of the players stayed the same. Still, Rodgers looks better this year, Adams has been hurt, and players like Allen Lazard have stepped forward. That trajectory will help get this offense going, providing more confidence and rhythm.
When Rodgers doesn’t play his best, they’re a playmaker short, so when a player like Lazard or Jake Kumerow makes plays, this offense hums closer to its peak potential. No one except Jones played his best Sunday and much like its down all season, found a way to win. It’s what’s both so encouraging and maddening about this offense. We’ve seen this offense be great for stretches and then just fall asleep. If they can hit their stride as Christmas approaches, they’re capable of playing in February.