‘DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE CHECKDOWN’

Whether he needs a reminder or not, Aaron Rodgers has used the running backs more in the passing game this season. Sometimes it’s a screen pass, sometimes a swing pass, but more often lately – on Monday night, for example – the “checkdown” has been an effective option. (Bruce Kluckhorn/USA TODAY)

Green Bay Packers fans have become quite accustomed to Aaron Rodgers’ go-to passing plays.

The play-action “shot” play to Jordy Nelson, for one, seems almost unstoppable this season.

So, too, does the back-shoulder throw in some form or fashion to one of the wide receivers or tight ends.

And few in the game connect better off second or third reactions than Rodgers and Randall Cobb from the slot.

But more and more in recent weeks, Rodgers has used his running backs in the passing game. Last Monday, he got a reminder to do so from his position coach, Alex Van Pelt, who, before taking over the quarterbacks, conveniently spent two years coaching the running backs in Green Bay.

“He’s great on game day giving me just a couple things to think about,” said Rodgers of Van Pelt. “Like last week, for example, we always talk before the game and I say, ‘Hey, what’ve you got for me?’ And he said, ‘Don’t forget about the checkdown.’ And sure enough, I hit about 10 of them in the game.”

Against the Atlanta Falcons, Rodgers targeted running backs 12 times for eight completions, which tied a season high for the group. (Eddie Lacy had eight catches himself at New Orleans on Oct. 26.) On several plays, tight end Andrew Quarless also lined up in the backfield.

As good as Rodgers has been this season with the downfield passing game, even he realizes the value of the checkdown under certain circumstances. Such dump-off throws can be used to slow down a strong pass rush, such as the one the Packers will be facing this week at Buffalo. And if defenses continue employing a “contained” pass rush against Rodgers to try to keep him in the pocket, the running backs can be an attractive option.

“Our game plan, it varies every week,” said Lacy. “As you know, whenever we pass the ball, if we don’t have protection, we have a spot we have to be in. Whether he checks it down or not depends on what he sees downfield. But he expects us to be where we’re supposed to be and, if he gives us the ball, then we have to make the most of our opportunities. So, if it becomes more than what it is, that’s always good, but as of right now we’re just being where we’re supposed to be.”

The ability of Lacy and James Starks to break tackles and gain extra yards on the second level has always been a strength. Lacy ranks third in the NFL among all players with 10.8 yards after the catch per catch and fourth among running backs with 10.7 yards per reception.

But catching the football could be another story. Lacy made it a goal to improve those skills in the offseason, then put in extra time during training camp. The effort has paid off. In addition to checkdowns, he has turned in big plays off the screen pass, a 67-yarder against the Saints being his longest. Overall, he is third on the team with 36 catches and four receiving touchdowns, already surpassing those totals from his entire rookie season (35 and 0). Starks, on the other hand, has just 13 catches but has looked much more comfortable with his awareness in the passing game and looking the ball into his hands. Rodgers on Wednesday noted Starks’ career-long 28-yard reception along the sideline against the New England Patriots that help set up Nelson’s 45-yard touchdown just before halftime.

“Those guys are so in tune this year. They’ve both improved,” said Rodgers of Lacy and Starks. “They’re dialed in on their protections first, and then what their route responsibility is, and running those to get open has been really impressive. It’s no surprise they’ve gotten a good amount of opportunities out of the backfield.”

The Packers have targeted running backs in the passing game 68 times this season, which is on pace to surpass their totals in 2013 (76) and 2012 (71). Back in 2011, Rodgers’ MVP season, running backs were targeted 88 times, the highest since Rodgers took over as the starter in 2008.

Fans might remember the fateful playoff game against the New York Giants that 2011 postseason that put a damper on a 15-1 regular season. Like recent opponents of the Packers, the Giants spent much of that game using four or occasionally five pass rushers while putting the rest of the defense in coverage. When no one was open, Rodgers was forced to make plays on the run, recording a career-high 66 yards on seven carries. Similar defensive game plans against Rodgers this year have given him the opportunity to use his feet, and he has responded with 12 runs for 127 yards over the last four games (not counting kneel downs).

“It’s always important to extend plays and that’s kind of how I play, so I have to make sure I’m ready to do that every week. Whether it’s one time or 10 times a game, there’s going to be opportunities when the pocket breaks down or when the rush is more of a rush to enclose me in the pocket where I’ve got to extend the play and make something happen with my legs,” said Rodgers.

Through 13 games, 19.1 percent of the Packers’ completed passes have gone to running backs (Lacy, Starks, John Kuhn or DuJuan Harris). The highest that percentage has been since Rodgers took over as the starter has been 19.7 in 2011. Last Monday against the Falcons, it was 33 percent.

“It’s great when you can throw a 2-yard pass and they break a bunch of tackles and turn it into a big one,” said Rodgers. “Eddie almost had two touchdown catches (against the Falcons). I just kind of underthrew the other one on his corner route but it’s great to pump fake and hit him on a 2-yard pass and he falls into the end zone for a touchdown. Those are great ones.”

Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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