With his pick-free start to the season, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers continues to raise the bar
Or, lower the bar.
Rodgers’ interception percentage, already a league-record 1.64 percent entering the season, has fallen to 1.58. No. 2 on the all-time list? Sunday’s counterpart, St. Louis Rams quarterback Nick Foles, with a career interception rate of 1.80 percent.
They are the only quarterbacks with an interception percentage of less than 2.0 with at least 1,000 career pass attempts, according to Pro Football Reference.
Foles is making the Rams’ decision to acquire him from Philadelphia in a trade for Sam Bradford look like a stroke of genius. In 2013 with Philadelphia, Foles threw 27 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. That 13.5-to-1 ratio is the best in NFL history. Last season, he regressed to 13 touchdown vs. 10 interceptions while throwing a similar number of passes. This season, he’s thrown five touchdowns with just one interception in 111 attempts.
“Nick is young but I thought Nick played really well for Andy (Reid) his rookie year and then the second year his numbers and everything reflected an outstanding year,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said during a Wednesday conference call. “Even though he was banged up last year a little bit, what we liked was the poise, the huddle presence. It just was a good deal for us, and some of that paid off for us last week. It showed. He hung in the pocket and made some tough throws and took some hits — which we don’t like, but it happens sometimes and he answered.”
Since the start of the 2013 season, Foles’ touchdown-to-interception ratio of 3.46-to-1 is second only to Rodgers’ 6-to-1 mark. Rodgers, who is known for his decision-making, pointed to the same trait when asked about Foles. Foles, in turn, sounded like Rodgers.
“You just want to be smart with the football,” Foles told reporters in St. Louis this week. “If you have an opportunity, be aggressive. If it’s not the look you wanted and it looks a little gray, just check it down and take positive yards. I think Aaron does a great job of, if he doesn’t like it, he just gets it to his back right away. He’s also a guy that really gets the ball down the field. He just has a great gauge for that. He’s played the game for a long time. He’s got a great feel for it. That’s why he’s one of the best.”
Rodgers, with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, is enjoying one of his best stretches in a career filled with brilliant stretches. He has gone 191 passes since his last interception. That is the fourth-best in franchise history, and if he can keep it up on Sunday, he’ll likely vault past his streaks of 212 and 202 passes in 2014. Bart Starr owns the franchise record with 294 passes in 1964 and 1965.
Rodgers has gone 123 attempts without an interception this season. That’s his best season-opening streak ever. He’s only had one pass hit a defender’s hand.
“I go through my progressions and look for the open guys and try to make the proper reads,” Rodgers said. “It’s different without Jordy (Nelson) there, obviously, because he was open more times than anybody else. He got the lion’s share of the targets last year but we’ve been able to spread it around a little bit. We’ve just got to keep on plugging away.”
What makes the season-opening streak all the more remarkable is how he and the rest of the offense have had to adjust on the fly throughout this season. Nelson was lost in the preseason. James Jones was signed before Week 1. Davante Adams has been healthy for about five quarters, meaning rookie Ty Montgomery has moved into the starting lineup. Randall Cobb is battling a sore shoulder.
“I think it speaks to Aaron’s discipline, the fact that he hasn’t changed the way he plays,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think it’s important any time you go through a change in personnel, even going back to the preseason starting with Jordy. You don’t replace Jordy Nelson, so we don’t need to change how we’re playing. Everybody needs to step up and do their role, do their job but make sure you’re ready to take advantage of more opportunities that may come your way. I think really that speaks to the discipline of Aaron at the quarterback position. He hasn’t tried to force things to try to make things happen. He’s done a great job of running the offense and taking advantage of what the defense gives us.”
Since 1960, he’s one of 11 quarterbacks to throw at least 120 passes in the first four games and not have an interception. If he finishes Sunday’s game with at least 27 passes and no interceptions, he’d join Roman Gabriel (1969), Marc Bulger (2006) and Jason Campbell (2008) as the only players with zero interceptions in 150 attempts in the first five games.
“I don’t know if it’s possible” to go all season without an interception, Rodgers said, “but I enjoy the streak."
INSIGHTS ON STOPPING THE RUN
It started with Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch.
Then it was Jamaal Charles and Carlos Hyde.
Now, it’s Todd Gurley.
That’s the season-opening gauntlet of running backs to challenge the Packers’ defense. Gurley, the touted rookie who demolished the Cardinals’ excellent defense in the fourth quarter last week, will be a focal point of the Rams’ attempt to spring a second consecutive road upset on Sunday.
“We’ve got a great challenge this week,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “We’ve got a running back that I’m sure is coming in with a lot of confidence and I can anticipate the Rams wanting to feed him to see if that confidence is real. It’s going to be a great test for us.”
The Packers’ run-defending renaissance has been well-documented. After Forte rushed for 141 yards in Week 1, Lynch, Charles and Hyde have managed a combined 111. The Packers have allowed 2.86 yards per first-down rush for the season. That sounds pretty good, but how’s this: With quarterback scrambles thrown out of the mix, the Bears turned 13 first-down carries into 66 yards (5.1 average). The last three weeks, opponents have turned 23 first-down carries into 35 yards (1.5 average). First-down success frequently translates to fourth-down punts.
It starts with the defensive line, obviously. Nose tackle B.J. Raji mentioned a new mentality in his group.
“Trgo (defensive line coach Mike Trgovac) and (assistant) Jerry (Montgomery) coach us and we call it not taking one for one,” Raji said. “That’s the phrase we use. Even though you have a responsibility in this gap, being able to help the defense if the ball bounces back into another gap. In the past, I think we played more one for one. You’re not going to win every block but when two guys can take up four gaps, you really give your linebackers and everybody else a chance to recover.”
Trgovac pointed to the depth of his unit, which got better with last week’s return of Letroy Guion.
“I think we’re playing cohesively together right now,” Trgovac said. “We’ve been able to mix different guys in there so offensive linemen can’t always get used to the same guy. I think we have some equally talented players in there along the front that the drop-off is not much at all. I feel confident run or pass putting any of the five that are active in there.”
With the defensive line taking up blockers, life obviously is easier for the linebackers. How much easier? Using the coaches’ tackles counts, inside linebackers Clay Matthews, Nate Palmer and Sam Barrington had 20 tackles against Chicago. Matthews and Palmer have a total of 26 tackles the past three games.
“I think it’s a collective energy that we’re playing in synch now so it’s resulted in some very positive performances,” Moss said. “Everybody took it upon themselves to do a little better — coaching, playing — and Coach McCarthy’s been a positive influence. So you put all of that stuff together, and we’re making a great effort to emphasize some of the things that it takes to play great run defense. I think the players have bought in. I think we’re doing the little things — the little detail stuff — and we’ve had the right approach, from coaching to practicing to the players executing. All the resources at our disposal come into play in this. There’s a lot of things. From our position, we’re doing what we’re doing. I like the guys and the way they’re playing.”
With the defensive line and linebackers taking care of business, the secondary’s role has been to clean up the leftovers.
“We’re trying to tackle better,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “That’s the thing that we’ve emphasized a lot is getting our head across, bringing your arms, whether it’s holding on for dear life and waiting for someone else to come help you out, and getting the guy down. I think tackling has been our biggest concern.”
The NFL is all about the quarterback and cutting-edge schemes in the passing game.
Well, maybe not all about.
The Rams, under Fisher and general manager Les Snead, have taken a throwback approach to building their program.
— Build a butt-kicking, quarterback-sacking defensive line.
— Build the offense around a dominant running back.
The Rams had the best defensive line in the NFL last season, with all four starters being first-round picks and generally exceeding those lofty expectations. So what did the Rams do in free agency? Signed defensive tackle Nick Fairley, a former first-round pick by the Lions.
“That’s the kind of D-line you’d love to have as a D-coordinator,” Rodgers said.
But not the kind of defensive line you want to face as a quarterback.
It starts with defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald, the 13th pick of the 2014 draft, had nine sacks and 17 tackles for losses as a rookie and has 12.5 sacks in his brief career. That’s the most for any 4-3 defensive tackle in the league during that span. With his unparalleled quickness, he’s often unblockable. For the first time this season, Donald was held without a sack last week. No worries. The Rams’ coaches credited him with eight pressures.
“Aaron is a pro. He’s humble, he’s a team guy, he puts in the extra time in addition to that he’s very, very talented,” Fisher said. “He’s got great lower-body strength and quickness, and his hands are outstanding. He’s one of those guys that I think once we got him here last year we agreed not to coaching him, just let him go because he was so well coached. He’s just one of those guys, he sees things, he recognizes things and when you cut him loose he’s hard to block.”
At a shade less than 6 foot 1, some scouts deemed Donald too small, which is why he was just a three-star recruit coming out of high school and why he fell to No. 13 in the draft, even after posting one of the best seasons in major-college history with 11 sacks and 28 tackles for losses at Pittsburgh. He followed that award-winning season by dominating all comers at the Senior Bowl.
“I never had a chip on my shoulder,” Donald said during his conference call. “People always ask me that since college, ‘Do I play with a chip on my shoulder because of all that talk?’ But like I always say, I just go out there and do my job, play the game I love to play and let my game speak for me. Some people might be Aaron Donald fans, and other people that aren’t. I can’t do anything about that. Just keep going and doing what I’m supposed to do.”
The other defensive tackle is Michael Brockers, the 14th pick of the 2012 draft. He has five tackles for losses this season. Rodgers called him a “stud.”
The ends are Robert Quinn, the No. 14 pick of the 2011 draft, and Chris Long, the No. 2 pick of the 2008 draft. Quinn, a Pro Bowler in each of the past two seasons, has 48 career sacks, including three this season. Since the start of the 2012 seasons, his 43 sacks rank third in the NFL and he has a league-high 15 forced fumbles. Long, the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long, has 53.5 career sacks, including 11.5 in 2012 and two this season. Throw in Fairley (first round, 2011) and William Hayes (fourth round, 2008), who led the Rams in pressures last season, and the firepower is extraordinary. They led the charge last week as the Rams limited the Cardinals to one touchdown. En route to starting 3-0, the Cardinals were averaging 5.7 touchdowns.
“They are a very talented front,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “We’ve had speed before. We’ve seen that with Seattle, (which) has a very quick front. Edge rushers like Kansas City’s guys are very quick on the edge. Whatever four that are in there, they’re very, very explosive. Even Brockers, he has lost weight to be quicker. That’s their style of play and they’re very, very quick and athletic.”
INSIDE THE RAMS
— With the defense in place, St. Louis turned its attention to the offense this offseason. The Rams bucked conventional wisdom that running back is a throwaway position by drafting Gurley with the 10th overall selection. He was the first running back drafted in the first round since 2012 and just the sixth taken in the top 10 picks in the last decade.
Gurley, who missed the second half of his final season at Georgia with a torn ACL, was brought along slowly by Fisher. After sitting out the first two games, last week’s game at Arizona marked Gurley’s first extensive playing time. And did he deliver. Among his 19 carries for 146 yards were four carries of 20-plus yards in the second half. He piled up a whopping 106 yards in the fourth quarter, the most by a Rams running back in a single period since Eric Dickerson in 1984.
The Rams didn’t even top 80 rushing yards in any of their first three games.
“We drafted him for a reason,” Fisher said. “We drafted him to be the back of our future. We did not draft him to play and win the opener. We drafted him, as I said, to be that guy that we can count on through years to come. We were very patient with him. He worked really hard, as you can imagine. Anybody coming off of that injury, to come back and do the things that he did last week, has to work hard. And he did. We monitor his reps, and we took him slowly and carefully through the preseason and just increased his reps. We just felt like it was a matter of time before he was going to hit some runs. It was really impressive. He’s not 100 percent yet. I think we all realize it takes a full year (to fully recover from a torn ACL), but it shows you the kind of skill-set that he has based on what he was able to do last week.”
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has seen plenty of great running backs during his lengthy NFL career. It’s just one game, but Gurley jumps off the screen.
“Obviously, his size and speed and what he did last week, he certainly made a difference,” Capers said. “It catches your eye when you put him in there and he comes away with that kind of yardage on the number of times he carried the ball. The guy’s a talented guy. I think that you’ve got to try not to let him get going. Like most big running backs, you want to try to keep him going east and west and not north and south, because if they can get that big body running downhill and there’s vertical seams in your defense, they’re going to make yardage.”
— Not only did the Rams address running back but they used their Day 2 draft picks on offensive linemen, with Wisconsin’s Rob Havenstein (second round) starting at right tackle and Jamon Brown (third round) starting at left guard. They’re part of a young offensive line that includes left tackle Greg Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick in 2014, and center Tim Barnes, a fourth-year pro who made his eighth career start last week.
Havenstein was seen as a reach by the media pundits due to an awful Scouting Combine. However, he hasn’t allowed a sack in four starts in showing signs that he might be the latest Wisconsin lineman to have a successful NFL career.
“Really happy with him,” Fisher said. “He’s done a really good job. Throughout the offseason and OTAs and camp, Chris (Long) and Will (Hayes) kept saying this guy is going to be special. He got a lot of quality work. He gets it. He gets it. He’s really well-coached. He spends the extra time. If you didn’t know anything about him and you watched him play, I don’t think you would lean toward the side of him being a rookie. I think you would say this guy has been playing for a while.”
— On the surface, for a team like the Rams, going to Arizona and shocking the undefeated Cardinals last week might be a building-block game.
But with these Rams, who knows which team is going to show up? St. Louis beat Seattle 34-31 in Week 1, then laid a pair of eggs with losses to Washington (24-10) and Pittsburgh (12-6).
“It was big for us, but we’re on to the next challenge,” Fisher said. “And, obviously, this is a huge challenge. Talking about Arizona, yeah, it was big. The team is past the two losses against Washington and against Pittsburgh. We left a lot of plays on the field in both those games. I think if you’re building to compete in the division, right now we’re 2-0 in our division. It’s about improvement. It’s about one week at a time and just improving your football team.”
— The Rams had another first-round starter on defense but linebacker Alec Ogletree sustained an ankle injury last week that required surgery. He will miss the next several games. It’s a huge loss. By the Rams’ count, he had 169 tackles last season and 55 in the first four games of this season.
“I think you have to look hard around the league to find a linebacker that’s playing better than he was,” Fisher said. “He’s really come on. He was having a great start. Injuries are part of it. We’re hopeful that he will be able to come back. We’re going to miss him, but the next guy has to step up like coaches always say. You have to push through it, and obviously we brought Akeem Ayers in here for a reason. We’ve got some young, athletic linebackers that are in position now that are going to have to make plays for us.”
— While McCarthy has focused on a fast start, it’s not how you start but how you finish that matters. In the Super Bowl era, this is Green Bay’s fifth 4-0 start. Only the Super Bowl XXXI champions of 1996 ended the season hosting the Lombardi Trophy.
“To get off to a fast start was obviously the focus, which it is every year,” McCarthy said. “But I think more importantly is how we’ve played in games, the adversity that every team has to overcome to win a game, especially early in the year. We’ve talked about that time and time again. It’s tough to win. You have to find ways to win games early. And with that, continue to grow as a football team. That’s the part that I’m excited about because I know we can play a lot better. I know as a football team we can play a lot better. We’ve got a team coming in here that beat an excellent Arizona opponent on the road. This is going to be a big challenge for us.”
— There are countless connections between players and coaches every week. Here’s one of them. McCarthy and Rams offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti coached together at the University of Pittsburgh as well as with the Chiefs in 1998 and the Saints in 2001 and 2002.
“Frank’s a dear friend,” McCarthy said. “We started together back in 1989 as graduate assistants at the University of Pittsburgh and just spent a lot of time together both personally and in football. He is a football junkie, always has been. This will be a big challenge; the fact of the matter is you watch their tape you see some of the similar things that he’s doing to what we’re doing. But he’s very creative and he’ll have a creative game plan for our defense.”
Speaking to Rams beat reporters, Cignetti said McCarthy was instrumental in his climb up the coaching ladder.
“Mike and I are very much like brothers,” Cignetti said. “Love each other. Respect each other. We know we’re there for each other. It’s more off the field than on the field. Myself, I got a chance to be his quarterback coach in New Orleans for two years. My father and Mike are the two guys who really showed me how to become a coordinator — how to implement the run game, the protection phase, the passing game, how to organize it, how it train the quarterback. So, I think a lot of Mike. We have a great friendship.”
— Rodgers’ home success has been well-documented, with his regular-season streaks of 486 consecutive passes without an interception and 43 touchdown passes since his last interception being NFL records. (Those figures are 580 attempts and 48 touchdowns once the postseason is considered.) The 43-touchdown mark is more than the streaks that are tied for second all-time: Brett Favre (1995) and Peyton Manning (2012-12), with 20 games apiece, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Speaking of playing at home, Green Bay has won 10 consecutive regular-season home games. The Rams haven’t won back-to-back road games since 2012.
— The Rams lead the series 46-45-2, though Green Bay has won the last four by margins of 10 (2012), 21 (2011), 19 (2009) and 19 (2007). In the 2012 game at St. Louis, Rodgers was 30-of-37 for 342 yards and three touchdowns. St. Louis’ last win was a 23-20 verdict on Oct. 8, 2006, at Lambeau Field. Marc Bulger threw two touchdown passes as McCarthy’s first team fell to 1-4.
NUMBERS WORTH NOTING
— Moments after celebrating a victory over San Francisco, Rodgers addressed the media and was asked about the defense. During his response, Rodgers switched gears.
“Without Jordy, we lack some of that deep threat,” Rodgers said.
The Packers have been efficient on offense but, not surprisingly, they’ve been unable to replace the home-run ability that Nelson provided. His five touchdown receptions of 60-plus yards last season were more total 60-yard passing plays than 30 of the other 31 teams. Green Bay simply doesn’t have a game-breaker, and that’s shown up in the passing game.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Rodgers has thrown 11 passes at least 20 yards downfield and 23 passes between 10 and 19 yards. That projects to 44 and 96, respectively. Last season, Rodgers threw 70 passes at least 20 yards downfield and 136 passes between 10 and 19 yards.
“We know how to create big plays,” McCarthy said on Monday. “Sometimes you don't always have to throw the ball 55 yards in the air to get that done.”
McCarthy is right. Entering this week’s games, the Packers had 11 completions of 25-plus yards. Only Cincinnati had more with 15. Still, this is an offense built on efficiency — catching the ball, running the ball and not having self-inflicted wounds.
“We’ve still had some balls over the top but we just haven’t had kind of the ‘Jordy package,’” Rodgers said on Wednesday. “We haven’t found a guy to do some of that stuff yet but we’re making up for it by running the ball well. I think we’re in the top two or three running the ball and the offensive line’s been blocking really well. We’re just kind of doing things a little differently and it equals four wins.”
— James Jones will never be known as one of the NFL’s speedsters but he’s picked up as much of the slack as possible. He enters this week’s games tied for the NFL lead with six receptions of 25-plus yards. In fact, he owns the team’s five-longest plays from scrimmage.
Jones is averaging 18.6 yards per reception. This from a player who averaged a woeful 9.1 yards per reception with Oakland last season.
“Just making plays, man,” Jones said. “The ball’s coming my way down the field and I’m making the play. It’s nothing special about it. Aaron’s giving me some opportunities and I’m capitalizing on those opportunities. Some of them are big plays, some of them aren’t.”
— The Packers have outscored their opponents 38-6 in the first quarter, with that plus-32 differential leading the NFL. The Rams, like the 49ers last week, have been starting their games in slow motion, having been outscored 23-7.
— The Rams are the youngest team in the NFL, with a Kickoff Weekend average age of 24.96 years, 3.26 years of experience and just two players age 30 or older. The Packers are the second-youngest team, with an average age of 25.23 years — the youngest under general manager Ted Thompson. Here's a video on the topic.
— The Rams will be the latest challenge to Green Bay’s vastly improved special teams. Rams receiver Tavon Austin returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in Week 1. He’s the only player in NFL history with a 75-yard punt return in each of his first three seasons in the NFL.
“He’s got the speed of (Seattle’s Tyler) Lockett and the quickness of the guy at Kansas City (De’Anthony Thomas),” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “If you take the whole package, he’s probably the best we’ve seen to date. He is a scary guy when he gets his hands on the ball. He’s a strong runner and he makes things happen. It’s going to be a challenge for our cover team and also for Tim, trying to place the ball for us.”
Adding to the challenge is the threat of the trick play. Two-time Pro Bowl punter Johnny Hekker, who’s in his fourth season, is a former high school quarterback. For his career, he’s 5-of-7 passing with a touchdown as a rookie.
“We’re probably going to get a deceptive or two,” Zook said. “You can’t play cautious. You’ve got to play hard and you’ve got to do exactly what we talk about and hopefully the techniques that are involved will handle the stuff. They have to know personnel, they have to know when somebody’s lined up in a different place and why. There’s a lot of communication that has to go on in that type of situation but there’s no question they’ve usually got a little something up their sleeve.”
— As you’d expect given defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ track record, the Rams aren’t afraid to blitz. They entered this week’s games with 57 blitzes, tied for the sixth-most in the league. Rodgers, however, has a 133.5 passer rating against the blitz this season, and his 111.4 mark since taking over as starter in 2008 is tops in the league.
Will the Rams roll the dice? At least for public consumption, the answer is no.
“(Blitzing) is not the appropriate thing to do this week by any means because Aaron’s so sharp with recognizing things and the ball’s going to come out,” Fisher said.
— The Packers rank third in the NFL in rushing with 136.3 yards per game and have topped 120 rushing yards in all four games. Other than James Starks’ 35-yard run, Green Bay has done it without any truly explosive runs. However, it is tied for second with 18 runs of 10-plus yards.
“It’s pretty good when everyone thinks we’re a passing team,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said.
The Packers are right on the heels of the top two rushing offenses in the NFL, with Washington leading the way with 139.5 rushing yards per game and Minnesota second with 136.5.
“That’d be pretty awesome to get to No. 1,” Bakhtiari said.
— The Packers have been remarkably balanced on offense. On first-and-10, the Packers have run the ball 50.9 percent and thrown it 49.1 percent, according to the league’s statistical database.
“We try to be balanced in all downs and distances except third down, where predominantly you’re going to throw it a lot of the time,” associated head coach Tom Clements said. “But if you can stay balanced it makes … you never want to become one-dimensional. Because if you are one-dimensional, it makes it easier on the defense. If you can run the ball and throw the ball and be effective being both, it’s beneficial.”
THE LAST WORD GOES TO ...
Packers receiver James Jones, on any joy of having a big start to this season after being released by the Raiders and Giants: “Yeah, because I make my kids proud when they see Daddy catch touchdowns and they see Daddy catch the ball. They run around school saying, ‘That’s my daddy.’ So, I get some joy from that. But proving people wrong? No. I always knew I could play this game so I don’t go out there trying to prove people wrong. Just go out there and make my family proud, man.”