To slide or not to slide?
The question, simple enough on the surface, can become complex in the heat of the moment. That goes for Aaron Rodgers, who is expected to miss practice this week while recovering from a concussion suffered on a second-quarter run last Sunday at Detroit in which he chose not to slide.
Rodgers' head bounced off the Ford Field turf after Lions defensive back Amari Spievey and linebacker Landon Johnson converged to bring him down at the end of an 18-yard run. Rodgers' status for this week's Sunday night matchup with the Patriots remains in question.
For the better part of this season, Rodgers has made smart decisions when escaping the pocket by either sliding or running out of bounds to avoid unnecessary contact. Sunday's run would appear to be a rare mistake. And while Rodgers has not been available to the media since his injury, the other quarterbacks on the Packers' roster discussed on Wednesday the difficulty of running in open space.
"With Aaron's hit and everything, he's a player that gives it his all every snap, and that's what he did on that play," said practice squad quarterback Graham Harrell, who was a standout at Texas Tech. "He's going out there giving it his all and trying to get a few extra yards and gets hit."
Packers coaches have preached the idea of playing smart to their quarterbacks in such situations. Lip readers could see coach Mike McCarthy on Sunday giving both Rodgers and backup quarterback Matt Flynn a reminder after they took hits on long runs. Flynn's came in the third quarter when he, too, chose the non-slide route on a 12-yard run to convert a third down.
"I think if I slid, I might not have gotten the first down," said Flynn. "Aaron had a couple of runs earlier in the year where he slides and they've got that rule where the ball is marked (where you begin your slide). So I looked over to the sideline when I was running, so I was kind of afraid I wouldn't get the first."
The difference with Rodgers' run in the first half from Flynn's in the second was that Rodgers had a first down by some 10 yards. And while the extra yardage was not critical at the time, there was some open field ahead to make a bigger play.
"I think sliding, it's something that kind of comes natural for a quarterback, but at the same time you never want to give up yards or anything like that, so in the heat of the moment, things get to you sometime and you don't slide," said Harrell. "You're always taught to slide most of the time, but sometimes it doesn't happen. That's the game of football. It's a physical game. You're going to get hit some. You don't ever want a concussion or an injury, but it is part of the game unfortunately, and he was just giving great effort."
Rodgers braced for initial contact with Spievey, but then got hit on the backside by Johnson, which caused the injury. Rodgers came up woozy, and after a timeout and three more plays, he was out of the game for good.
Rodgers gets hit on the fateful play.
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
Flynn, who might get his first career start on Sunday, attempts to take a more black-and-white approach.
"If it's first or second down, you've got to get down," he said. "You can't take an unnecessary shot. If you've already got the first down, get down. I guess depending on the situation in the game, if it's third down, you've just got to be smart, and I guess probably also to see who's come after you to hit you."
Yet the chance for a big play, regardless of down, is a natural competitive instinct. That instinct has served Rodgers well this season. For the most part, he has avoided big hits among his 309 yards on the ground.
The Packers have benefitted. While their running game has struggled, Rodgers is fourth among quarterbacks in the league in moving the chains with his feet. His 19 first downs this season and 13 red zone touchdowns over the last three seasons are integral parts of the Packers' offense, something Rodgers addressed in his postgame press conference after a Dec. 5 win over the 49ers in which he rushed four times for 39 yards.
"On a day like today when you're playing a team that likes to play a lot of man coverage on third downs and normal down-and-distance as well," Rodgers began, "it's an extra part of our offense that can keep things moving as long as I'm not turning the ball over when I'm in those situations. I think Mike (McCarthy) likes that added dimension."
The danger with a running quarterback for the Packers, as they found out this past game, is thinning out depth at a position where there is none. McCarthy has kept just two quarterbacks active for the past several seasons, making Flynn the only backup. Had he been hurt against the Lions, the Packers would have gone to emergency quarterback Jordy Nelson, who is a receiver.
Indications are this week that if Rodgers cannot go, Harrell will be promoted to the active roster. Though he has not played in an NFL regular-season game, he has enough experience as a quarterback to know that the decision to slide is easier said than done.
"Sometimes a guy gets on you before you know it and you don't have the chance to slide," he said. "But like I said, you almost always try to slide. But if you're diving for the sticks, sometimes you don't. Like Matt's play last week, he was diving for the sticks and got hit, and with Aaron, I think the guy kind of got on him when he wasn't ready for it, so he didn't have the chance to slide."
Flynn likely will play with caution should he get the call this week and find himself out of the pocket trying to pick up yards. If he did not get the message last Sunday, he has it now.
"We definitely talked about playing smart and the importance of it on Monday," he said.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com
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