Rodgers owns the best passer rating in NFL history at 105.4. So, it’s hardly a surprise that he’s charged up the 2014 rankings. After subpar performances against Seattle and Detroit, Rodgers has been his typically brilliant self the past two weeks in leading big victories over Chicago and Minnesota. He enters this weekend’s game with a 114.8 rating, just a shade behind Philip Rivers’ league-leading 116.3.
Rodgers, who is keenly aware of his growing place in NFL history, acknowledges that his recent string of milestones entering a milestone game are meaningful.
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“You realize you’re getting a little older in the league when you’re getting some achievement balls early in the season like this — 25,000 yards was a cool number, as was 200 touchdowns,” Rodgers said on Wednesday. “Definitely gets dwarfed by Peyton (Manning’s) 500 (touchdown passes) when that happens in a short amount of time there. It’s still special. It means I’ve been able to play pretty consistently and the guys around me made a lot of plays for me. This is my 10th season, and I like to think I’m halfway in; nine in and hopefully nine to go.”
Given Rodgers’ magnificent resume, it’s almost impossible to uncover any new ground. Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who was Green Bay’s offensive coordinator for Rodgers’ first four seasons as the starter, took an interesting verbal stroll down memory lane this week when asked when he knew Rodgers might be something special.
“I remember (coaching in) the Pro Bowl (following the 2007 season) before Aaron ever started a game and watching guys throwing the ball and just thinking to myself, ‘Geez, we’ve got a guy that hasn’t really played but it certainly looks like he can throw the ball like some of these guys’ that were there,” Philbin said during his conference call with Packers beat reporters.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy remembered that moment, as well as a Pro Bowl conversation he had with his mentor, Marty Schottenheimer, while on Schottenheimer’s staff in Kansas City.
“My first year in the league was 1993,” McCarthy recalled, “and I can remember Marty Schottenheimer distinctly telling me, saying, ‘Hey, kid, make sure you pay attention to these players when you’re over here this week because these are the best of the best, and to see what a top-flight tight end or linebacker and so forth (looks like).’ And we were talking about that, Joe (and I) were comparing our players to the other players at the Pro Bowl, and obviously Aaron’s name came up and we felt very confident about him.”
With Rodgers, the Packers are — and will continue to be — a perennial contender. That’s especially true when you pair Rodgers’ passing efficiency with defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ big-play pass defense.
In 2009, the Packers had a passer rating of 101.8 while they allowed a passer rating of 68.8, a difference of 33.0. In 2010, the Packers won the Super Bowl behind a team passer rating of 98.9 and a passer rating allowed of 67.2, a difference of 31.7. In 2011, with Rodgers winning MVP honors, the Packers had a passer rating of 122.6 while allowing a rating of 80.6, a difference of 42.0. In 2012, the Packers had a rating of 108.3 and a passer rating allowed of 76.8, a difference of 31.5. Last season was the one time when they didn’t enjoy an overwhelming advantage. Even just limiting the formula to the games in which Rodgers played, the Packers had a 104.9 rating while allowing a rating of 95.9, giving them an advantage of 9.0.
Passer rating differential is the “most significant” stat in football, Capers said. Last year, Seattle led that category with plus-39.0. In fact, according to ColdHardFootballFacts.com, 26 of the 73 champions led the league in differential, 44 finished in the top three and 69 were in the top 10. Four out of five of Vince Lombardi’s championship teams had the best differential, as did the championship teams of 1996 and 2010. Green Bay also led the league in 2011 and 2012.
This season, with Rodgers ranking second in passer rating and the turnover-producing defense ranking second in opponent passer rating, Green Bay leads the league at plus-40.1.
“The final four teams are most of the time the top three or four (in differential),” Capers said. “I go back and think about when the Packers won the Super Bowl when they beat the Panthers out there (for the NFC title in 1996, when Capers was Carolina’s head coach), I think they were plus-41 or 42 (actually 40.3). They were No. 1 in offense, No. 1 in defense, which rarely, rarely happens. … You look at when we won it here (in 2010), if we weren’t the top, we were one of the top two. The encouraging thing to me right now with our football team, we’ve got a lot of things that we’ve got to get squared away but I think we’re at plus-40 right now. That’s a more important stat than what a lot of people talk about.”
In the Week 1 loss at Seattle, the Packers missed a stunning 16 tackles — most in the league — according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Plenty was written and said about the Packers’ tackling. After all, reporters like delivering bad news and, oddly, fans like reading bad news. And in the wake of a horribly disappointing opening night, the atrocious tackling was an obvious target.
The explanation — and the solution — was simple. Fundamentals. Take what’s taught on the practice field and put it to use on game day. It seemed so simple.
“The one that jumps off the page at you is tackling,” McCarthy said the day after the game. “We had way too many missed tackles, and the fundamentals of footwork and the things that go into that that’s practiced every day didn’t carry onto the field.”
Not much has been written or said about the Packers’ tackling the past four games because the tackling problems have mostly been eliminated.
Heading into Sunday, the Packers are 23rd in the league with 8.40 missed tackles per game. However, since Week 1, Green Bay is tied for seventh with 6.00 missed tackles per game. (See chart below this item for PFF’s missed-tackle stats for the entire season and since Week 1).
“I think we were a little up and down to start the year,” Capers said. “Obviously, when you’re going against guys like (Seattle’s Marshawn) Lynch and (Percy) Harvin, you had better be a good tackling team because they’ll run through arm tackles. I think the last three weeks our tackling has improved.”
Since Week 1, 11 teams are averaging less than 7.0 missed tackles per game. Those teams have a combined season record of 36-18 and none of the teams have a losing record.
NFL Missed Tackles
|Team||Season||Average||Since Week 1||Average|
Eliminating the big play
From 2009 through 2012 — Capers’ first four seasons as coordinator — the Packers ranked second in the league with an opponent passer rating of 73.8. A big reason for that was Green Bay’s 103 interceptions during that span — a stunning 17 more than any other team. Last season, however, the Packers allowed a passer rating of 95.9. One reason why is the Packers finished 26th with 11 interceptions. More than that, though, was the number of big plays allowed. Green Bay tied for 28th last season with 61 completions of 20-plus yards.
It’s been a different story through the first five games of this season, with Green Bay’s passer rating allowed of 70.5 trailing only Cincinnati’s 67.6. Yes, the interceptions are back. Only the Giants (eight) have more than the Packers (seven). More importantly, the defense has sharply reduced the number of big plays allowed. It ranks fourth with 11 completions of 20-plus yards (two of the teams ahead of them, St. Louis with eight and Seattle with 10, have played only four games) and third with one completion allowed of 40-plus yards (at the end of the first half at Detroit).
“It’s been something we’ve tried to emphasize,” said Capers, whose unit allowed no plays of more than 18 yards against the Vikings. “Our No. 1 goal is to give up as few points as possible. We just know that when you don’t give up big plays, we’re hard to score on. That’s the way most people are in the league. People who score a lot of points are getting big chunks of yardage. It’s a game of big plays, explosive plays. You want to have as many as you can offensively and you want to have as few as you can on defense. I don’t believe it’s a trade-off to make a big play but give up a big play. I don’t like that trade-off.”
Green Bay ranks third in interception percentage (4.05), fifth in completion percentage allowed (59.0) and fifth in yards per pass play (6.03). That latter figure is incredibly telling. It would be the team’s lowest since 2010 (5.90) when it, not coincidentally, won the Super Bowl. It’s a byproduct not only of limiting completions but, as mentioned in the previous note, limiting run after the catch by making the tackle.
“I think we’re doing a good job with No. 1 receivers,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “Remember when I talked to you a couple weeks ago. More than getting interceptions it was eliminating explosives. We’ve done a good job of that and we’ve been able to pull the ball off of some teams. I’m pleased with how the group is playing. We need to improve that level of play and increase it going forward.”
The other sideline
— Philbin is thrilled that Cameron Wake is rushing quarterbacks for his team rather than the other way around.
In 2010, when Philbin was the Packers’ offensive coordinator, Wake — a relative no-namer at the time with 8.5 sacks in his first 18 career games — had three sacks and six quarterback hits as the Dolphins won 23-20 in overtime. Now, Wake is one of the most feared defenders in the league. The sixth-year veteran is a three-time Pro Bowler.
“He’s a big part of what we do on defense,” Philbin said. “He’s been a real consistent performer since the day I got here. And thanks for reminding me about the production he had when I was coaching against him. Yeah, he’s an excellent football player. He plays hard every play. He gets a lot of notoriety for getting after the quarterback but we think, when you watch him on film, he plays the run hard, he pursues to the ball hard. You’re going to get his best effort every single snap. He’s a big part of our defense.”
Here’s an interesting contrast: Clay Matthews was the Packers’ first-round pick in 2009. He’s got 51 career sacks. Wake, who also made his NFL debut in 2009, has 53.5 career sacks.
Wake, however, took the long road to the NFL. Literally. After an undistinguished career at Penn State in which he had just 8.5 sacks, Wake went undrafted in 2005 and didn’t even make it to training camp with the Giants that summer. He was out of football in 2005 and 2006 before signing with British Columbia of the CFL in 2007. He was an instant star. In two seasons, he had 39 sacks and was the league’s two-time defensive player of the year. About half of the NFL vied for his services — the Packers were not among them, according to a source — and he signed with Miami for the 2009 season.
“I’ve always been itching for the opportunity,” Wake said in his conference call. “All the way back then, whether I was at home sitting on Mom’s couch or in Canada, I just wanted somebody to give me a shot and I always said if I went out there and fell flat on my face or I couldn’t make a play and I got blocked, at least I would have known that I gave it my all. But in my heart of hearts, I knew that I could play this game. I was just glad that the Miami Dolphins gave me a shot to show everybody what I can do, and I promised myself I wouldn’t look back.”
For Rodgers, it’s the famous “chip” on his shoulder after going the junior-college route after high school and his infamous wait in the NFL’s Green Room during the 2005 draft. For Wake, it’s no different. He’s well aware of the high-profile players who were drafted early in 2005 but bombed.
“The thing that you’re speaking about has a lot of different names,” Wake said. “Whether it is hunger, the fire — whatever it is, it is definitely there. Forget draft day. I wasn’t even drafted, then I got picked up and got cut, and I sat at home for a whole season, so I had plenty of time to kind of let that marinate and fester inside me, and when I did get that opportunity, I told myself I would take the bull by the horns and ride it until it is dead. I still feel that way. Every day, I am going to go out on the field and I am blessed and I am honored to have the opportunity and, at the same time, prove myself and prove to myself, day in and day out, that I am going to beat this guy across in a pass rush. ‘This guy cant block me.’ That desire that it doesn’t matter what obstacle is in my way, literal or figuratively, I am going to overcome that or I am going to die trying. Whether you want to call it a chip, or fire, or hunger, or whatever, not being complacent, I still have it. Humble and all.”
The Packers might not have known much about Wake heading into that 2010 game but they certainly do now. He lines up primarily at left defensive end, making him the rare elite pass rusher who battles the right tackle rather than the left tackle. That puts the onus on Bryan Bulaga. Bulaga, who is the final year of his contract and could use a big game against a premier defender, hasn’t allowed a sack and has been flagged only once (false start) in about three-and-a-half games.
“Very explosive pass rusher, very quick off the ball,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “The challenge is that you have to get your hands on that cat because he’s quick.”
— Led by Wake and Olivier Vernon (11.5 sacks last season), the Dolphins boast one of the NFL’s top pass rushes. They are one of only four teams in the league with back-to-back-to-back 40-sack seasons, with 41 in 2011, 42 in 2012 and 42 in 2013. Cincinnati, Denver and Miami are the other teams. Going back even further, since 2008 – coinciding with Kacy Rodgers’ arrival as defensive line coach – the Dolphins rank third in the NFL with 259 sacks. Minnesota (269) and Pittsburgh (260) are the only teams with more.
Vernon is an underrated talent. When questioned about Miami’s “elite” rusher, Campen wondered if the question was about Wake or Vernon.
“Any time you play against excellent pass rushers, it’s a challenge. Especially on the road,” McCarthy said. “I think they’re outstanding. Particularly the way they get off the ball, you can see they’re well-trained and well-experienced as far as jumping the cadence. So, that’s evident. Just their get-offs and obviously their ability to finish. So, it’s a big challenge and obviously it’ll be a focal point for us.”
— Miami averages an impressive 4.99 yards per carry, good for fifth in the league. Green Bay’s inconsistent run defense has yielded a league-worst 163.0 rushing yards per game and a 24th-ranked 4.58 yards per carry.
“They’ve improved this line and they’re about to get better if they get (center/guard Mike) Pouncey back,” Capers said. “(Left tackle Branden) Albert has been a really good addition. They drafted (Ja’wuan) James out of Tennessee (in the first round). They do a nice job with their scheme and their alignment fits in with what they do with their scheme. They do a lot of combo blocking. They’ve got some guys that can combo up to the second level. Their quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) is an athletic guy and their running backs — Miller’s been a real good slashing running back for them, a good cutback runner. And I think they’ve got a commitment to it. One of the most impressive stats is they lead the league with the fewest three-and-outs. I think they’ve had five in four games. That’s a pretty good stat.”
Assuming veteran Knowshon Moreno is back from a dislocated elbow, the Dolphins will field a tremendous one-two punch in the backfield. Moreno, who led the Dolphins to an upset victory over New England in Week 1, averages 5.52 yards per carry. That ranks fifth in the NFL. But it’s not as good as Lamar Miller’s fourth-ranked 5.65 yards per carry. Moreno (Week 1) and Miller (Week 3) have had 100-yard rushing games.
“There’s so much misdirection,” Matthews said. “With Knowshon out, you’d think there’d be a drop-off but there really hasn’t been. They’re running hard out there and they make you stay gap-sound on defense. It’s important for us to know exactly where we’re fitting because they have so many variations of plays that they can run that it could leave defenses flustered.”
— It’s not quite the dynamic duo of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, but the Dolphins have a productive receiving duo in Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace. Hartline had 76 receptions for 1,016 yards in 2013 and 74 receptions for 1,083 yards in 2012, giving him a two-year haul of 150 receptions for 2,099 yards. He’s caught 16 passes for 161 yards this season.
Wallace, who was signed away from Pittsburgh last year, caught 73 passes for 930 yards and five scores in his Dolphins debut last season. In the AFC pecking order since 2009, his 328 receptions ranks fifth, his 5,218 receiving yards ranks fourth, his 15.9-yard average ranks third and his 40 touchdowns are first. In the NFL, his 55 receptions of 25-plus yards trails only DeSean Jackson (68) and Calvin Johnson (66). This season, he’s caught 20 passes for 246 yards for three touchdowns. He has “elite” speed, Capers said.
“You see it on film,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “Of course, he’s a deep-ball threat but he’s a very explosive guy. He’s one of those guys that you can throw it deep, give it to him short, and he can turn a screen into a big play. He’s a very athletic guy, explosive guy. He’s one of their playmakers.”
And tight end Charles Clay, while off to a slow start this season with 14 catches for 111 yards, provides another weapon. He caught 69 balls for 759 yards and a team-high six touchdowns last season.
— Plenty has been written about the McCarthy-Philbin angle this week. With Philbin running the offense, the Packers in 2008 and 2009 became the first team in NFL history to have a 4,000-yard passer (Rodgers), a 1,200-yard rusher (Ryan Grant) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Donald Driver and Greg Jennings).
“Everybody in here has a ton of respect for Joe and always appreciated hearing him talk,” Rodgers said. “Joe’s a guy that can really control the room. When he got up in front of the group, whether it was the team or the offense, which he usually did a couple times a week, Joe always had some great words about football and about life. I always appreciated his way of kind of bringing it all back together on Saturday mornings as he would give a talk and talk about what he did the night before, what he was thinking about during the week, maybe a book that he read in the offseason that was applicable or a quote that he saw. I always appreciated hearing his voice. I knew from really my second or third year that he was head coach potential and I was happy to see him get an opportunity.”
— The Packers scored 38 points in beating Chicago and 42 in a throttling of Minnesota. It’s the first time Green Bay has scored at least 38 points in back-to-back games since 2011. Surprisingly, the Packers never have scored 38 points in three consecutive games, according to STATS. Speaking of scoring 38 points, Miami is coming off a 38-14 win over Oakland. It’s the first time the Dolphins have scored 38 since beating Buffalo on Oct. 4, 2009.
— The bye hasn’t meant much of an advantage for the Dolphins. They are 14-11 in games immediately after the bye, including 4-6 at home. They did win at Green Bay in 2010 following a bye. Meanwhile, since McCarthy took over as Green Bay’s coach in 2006, the Packers are 14-2 in the week following their bye or a “mini-bye” from a Thursday game.
— The Dolphins are one of only four teams in the NFL to have finished in the top 10 in scoring defense in each of the past three seasons. Miami finished sixth (19.6 points per game) in 2011, seventh (19.8) in 2012 and eighth (20.9) in 2013. Only Cincinnati, San Francisco and Seattle have accomplished that feat. This year, however, the Dolphins are 24th with a 24.3 scoring average, though they are coming off a blowout win over Oakland two weeks ago in London.
— Tannehill, the eighth pick of the 2012 draft, has a career passer rating of 79.4, which certainly isn’t inspiring, though his 7,207 passing yards in 2012 and 2013 ranks fifth in NFL history by a quarterback in his first two seasons. When he has a passer rating of at least 91.0, the Dolphins are 13-0. His rating of 109.3 against Oakland before the bye was the fourth-best in his career. He completed 14 consecutive passes at one point.
“I think he’s done well,” Philbin said. “We saw definite progress in between Year 1 and Year 2. He’s obviously coming off the best performance he had this season. I think he’s done a really good job in the decision-making aspect of things. We’ve seen a lot of improvement there. He has completed 60 percent of his passes. He has cut down on his interceptions. The passing game, as I’ve said for years and years, really takes three things. It takes protection, it takes precision in the route, timing and spacing, and it needs accuracy from the quarterback. And we’ve got to get better at all three of those things in our passing game. Our passing game is not quite where it needs to be but I think we’re making strides.”
The Packers will have to be wary of Tannehill’s scrambling ability. He owns three of the longest runs by a quarterback in franchise history, including a 48-yarder last season against Pittsburgh. He’s carried 13 times for 53 yards in four games this season.
— Because of their perennial struggles, the Dolphins’ defense is mostly a no-name unit, other than Wake. However, it’s worth noting that Miami ranks seventh in the league with 322.3 yards per game. That includes No. 9 against the pass (215.0 yards allowed per game) and No. 13 against the run (107.3 per game). More importantly, they lead the NFL with 4.70 yards allowed per play and 5.70 yards allowed per passing play.
It’s been an up-and-down unit, though, with 29 points allowed against Buffalo and 34 allowed against Kansas City in back-to-back losses in Weeks 2 and 3.
“We’ve had a decent time as far as getting after the ball and getting turnovers, getting after the quarterback,” Wake said. “But I think another area we have to work on is being consistent. Guys do a lot of things well, but you have to do it all the time. You can’t stop the run one game and then give up 100 yards the next. In this league, it doesn’t work if you play up and down, up and down. You have to play at a high level each week if you want to have your season go the way you want it to. Just being consistent is definitely something we have been working, on even on the bye week. When we do that we’ve shown we can play at a high level, we just have to do it all the time.”
It will need to play at a high level to slow a Green Bay offense that has got rolling the past two weeks.
“I think their run game, even though on paper (it’s struggled), especially last week looked really, really good and gave them the balance,” Philbin said. “When they can get the run game going in addition to what they have with the perimeter players that they have and, obviously, the way Aaron can distribute the football and make plays down the field, it’s a tough combination.”
— One area where the Packers’ offense struggled last season — regardless of who was at quarterback — was the red zone. Green Bay ranked 26th with a touchdown rate of 50.8 percent when inside the 20-yard line. This season, Green Bay is up to third with a touchdown rate of 72.2 percent.
“That situational stuff is always really important,” Rodgers said. “Red zone, I’d say, was even a bigger point of emphasis for us (than usual). We were 4-for-4 last week. Last year, we got down there a good amount, but we didn’t score a lot of touchdowns. This year, we’re scoring more touchdowns.”
— A couple of the giveaways have been high-profile: the botched center-quarterback exchange on the first play against the Jets and Eddie Lacy’s fumble on the second play the following week against the Lions. So, it’s easy to miss the fact that Green Bay has only four giveaways this season. That’s tied for the fifth-fewest in the league. Rodgers has thrown only one interception — in the opener against Seattle — and has gone 128 consecutive attempts without one.
— Of all of Rodgers’ amazing numbers, nothing matters more than this one: In NFL history, Rodgers ranks No. 1 with 28.13 points per start. Tom Brady is second with 27.90 and Peyton Manning is third with 27.21.
“It’s a desire for perfection,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “Some guys don’t have that. The ones that I’ve been around that have been truly special have all been ultra-competitive and want to be perfect. A pass that might be 6 inches off the mark might get a disgusted look from Aaron because he missed by 6 inches.”
— Like we wrote a couple weeks ago, third down is the money down but first down sets up a unit’s success or failure. Miami ranks sixth in the league with a 6.16-yard average on first down. That production is spearheaded by its running attack, which has been consistently good. Miami ranks second in the league by gaining at least 4 yards on 57.0 percent of its first-down rushes. Green Bay, meanwhile, has surged to second in the defensive rankings by yielding just 4.38 yards per first-down play.
— Here’s why the official NFL measuring stick for offensive and defensive success, yardage, is silly. Miami’s defense ranks seventh in yards allowed (322.2) but 24th in points (24.3). Green Bay’s defense ranks 22nd in yards allowed (371.8) but tied for 10th in points (21.2). Why? Look no further than the red zone. Miami allows touchdowns 58.3 percent of the time, which is 19th in the league. Green Bay allows touchdowns 50.0 percent of the time, which ranks eighth. In goal-to-go situations, Miami allows touchdowns 80.0 percent of the time, which is tied for 18th. Green Bay allows touchdowns just 46.2 percent of the time, which ranks third.
“I think in general we’ve done better this year,” Matthews said. “I’m not sure what our numbers are in the red zone but we’ve done a pretty good overall job. Just buckling down when they’re inside the 20 and keeping points off the board has been the difference in a few games around here.”
— During his time in Green Bay, Daryn Colledge certainly was never a fan favorite. However, he was incredibly reliable, which has continued during his stops in Arizona and, now, Miami. Colledge, Miami’s starting left guard, will make his 102nd consecutive start against Green Bay, which will be the second-longest streak among active guards.
“He came in (in) late June for a workout, and he’s the same guy,” Philbin said. “Hasn’t missed a practice, hasn’t missed a game. He knows what he’s doing, he’s professional, he gets to work early, stays late. Really the exact same person you guys remember.”
The Packers have won eight in a row and 14 of their last 15 in October. Why? “I don’t know,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “Probably guys just finding out what their roles are going to be. I think at the beginning of the year, even through training camp and preseason, everyone is fighting for a job, so you don’t really get into certain roles that you’re going to play on this team. Maybe by then guys know their roles, they go out and do their job and we just get comfortable with what kind of team we’re going to be by that time. There’s a shot in the dark for you.”firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.