The Green Bay Packers made headlines, of course, in the NFL season opener back on Sept. 4 when not a single Aaron Rodgers pass was thrown at the Seattle Seahawks’ All-Pro cornerback in a 36-16 loss to the defending champions. With the rematch - this time for the NFC Championship - just three days away, a hobbled Rodgers is sticking to his tried-and-true philosophy for the passing game.
“Well, I plan to throw it to the open guy,” said Rodgers. “That’s kind of been the way I’ve played for a number of years. So if the guy on the right is open, I’ll throw it to the right, if the guy on the left is open, I’ll throw it to the left. Go through my progressions the way I’ve always played.”
No one in the NFL has been tougher to get open on than Sherman in 2014. Based on a Pro Football Focus’ metric for cornerbacks who play at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, Sherman was No. 1 in the league over the regular season by allowing just one reception for every 17.8 times he was the primary man in coverage. His passer rating against was 48.4, third-best in the league.
Asked Wednesday at his press conference if he expects the Packers to throw his way on Sunday, Sherman replied, “I expect them to execute their game plan, whatever that may be. Not sure what they’re going to do.”
In the season opener, Rodgers targeted just two of his wide receivers – Jordy Nelson (14 times for nine catches) and Randall Cobb (nine times for six catches) – over the course of the game. The Packers moved Nelson around but Sherman did not follow him and the Packers’ No. 3 receiver at the time, Jarrett Boykin (season-high 49 snaps), saw plenty of Sherman instead.
Rookie Davante Adams, who played a season-low nine snaps in that game, has since emerged as the No. 3 receiver and could play a big role, as could rookie tight end Richard Rodgers, if the Seahawks take away Nelson and Cobb. The Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense includes a No. 1 ranking in scoring (just 17.3 points allowed per game) and pass defense (just 185.6 yards per game) with a passer rating against of 80.3. Starting cornerback Byron Maxwell, who played sparingly last week due to an illness in the divisional playoff win over Carolina, is expected to return on Sunday.
So getting open in the secondary will be a challenge.
“Just execution,” said Nelson of how to get open against the Seahawks. “I mean, it’s going to depend on how they decide to play. Obviously, they’re known for being physical and that will be determined on game day but just running our routes the way we’ve been taught, understanding our schemes and the plays we’ve installed for their defense and trying to create as much separation as possible. That’s all we can do. You can’t do something outside your normal ability and what you’ve done all year.”
Season opener aside, the Packers have challenged some of the league’s top corners this season. Last week in the divisional round, Rodgers hit on five of six passes against Dallas’ Orlando Scandrick. Against Buffalo, Corey Graham was targeted six times. Against Atlanta, Desmond Trufant was targeted five times. And in two games against Minnesota, Xavier Rhodes got 10 balls thrown his way.
Perhaps the closest cornerback to Sherman the Packers have gone against this season was Darelle Revis of New England. In that game, Revis was targeted seven times and allowed only two completions, though one went to Nelson for a 45-yard touchdown.
The Packers used Cobb in that game out of the backfield frequently to create matchup problems for the Patriots’ defense. They did the same last week against the Cowboys when the offense needed a boost in the second half. Of Rodgers, Nelson and Boykin -- who shied away on Wednesday from talking about his opportunities in that season-opening game, only saying, “I’m focused on this game” -- Cobb was one of the few central figures direct in saying the Packers need to test Sherman this time around.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “Just the way that the game plan was set up and the way that we were running the no-huddle, not many balls went his direction, but we’re going to have to go at him to win this game and we’re not really worried about that and the situation, we’re worried about making sure we handle our business on offense.”
That business on offense starts with Rodgers, whose aversion to throwing interceptions has records to back it up. That thinking would not appear to changing for the big game this Sunday.
“Just depends on who’s open,” said Rodgers. “It’s always important to throw it to the right and throw it to the left a little bit.”
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com