There was a time when no defense in its right mind would dare play one deep safety with man coverage across the board and blitz on the same play against Aaron Rodgers. Especially a team like the Detroit Lions, who are familiar with Rodgers.
But the NFL goes in cycles, and teams and schemes change, so with Rodgers in the longest prolonged “slump” of his NFL career, the Lions took their chances Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers, for the most part, made the Lions pay like he did earlier in his career, when he built his two-time MVP resume feasting on aggressive defenses.
After subpar outings in his first two games of the season, Rodgers posted his best passer rating (129.3) in the last 18 games on the strength of four first-half touchdown passes. In the first two quarters, Rodgers was 7-of-9 for 101 yards and a touchdown (150.5 passer rating) when the Lions played just one deep safety. The Packers’ long gain of the day – 49 yards to Jordy Nelson – came when they caught the Lions in a bad personnel group. Nelson took advantage of linebacker Thurston Armbrister covering him in the slot for the long catch-and-run on a first-and-10 from the 40.
The Lions got even more aggressive on three pass plays in the first half when they had no deep safety, which Rodgers quickly realized and made adjustments. “You’ve got to take a shot in those situations,” he said. Oddly enough, the Packers hit on just one of those three plays, showing they still have work to do. But they did end each of those drives with a score, effectively wiping away the missed opportunities.
On the first no-deep-safety look, Rodgers and newcomer Jared Cook appeared to have a route communication error. On a first-and-10 from the Lions’ 17, Rodgers motioned Eddie Lacy out of the backfield, and when the Lions sent six rushers, Rodgers chose his matchup with Cook on safety Rafael Bush. The only problem was that Rodgers threw more of a corner route in the end zone while Cook straightened out his route, resulting in an incomplete pass.
On the 12th pass play of the half – a third-and-3 from the Lions’ 18 - Rodgers motioned running back James Starks to his left in anticipation of a blitz. The Lions brought seven rushers this time and with four receivers man-to-man, Rodgers took a shot down the left side to Nelson in the end zone. Nelson nearly made a diving, one-handed catch with tight coverage from Darius Slay. Starks missed his blitz pickup on Glover Quin and Rodgers had to throw with Slay in his face.
“We weren’t on the same page (on that play),” said Rodgers. “We went over, we shored things up, we got James (Starks) on the same page there with the protection and fixed it and threw a touchdown pass the next time.”
The Packers finally connected on the third no-deep-safety gamble when Rodgers hit Nelson down the right sideline for a touchdown on a third-and-2 from the Lions’ 17. Again the Lions brought seven rushers and Rodgers’ pre-snap recognition and Nelson’s step on Slay put the Packers up 31-3 on a poetic throw and catch. “I’m back,” is what guard T.J. Lang claims Rodgers said to him while celebrating the touchdown with a head butt. Rodgers said afterward that may not have been exactly the declaration, but the half is as good as the Packers have played offensively in almost a year.
The Lions sent extra rushers at Rodgers on nearly half of his 19 first-half dropbacks. Rodgers connected on a pair of noteworthy second-reaction passes with the Lions playing with two deep safeties. On the first, he completed a long pass to Randall Cobb when flushed out of the pocket. The second was the first touchdown pass to Nelson.
Based on point production, the first half against the Lions was the best the Packers have had in almost two years. They also scored 31 points in a Dec. 8, 2014, Monday night game against the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau. Like the Lions, the Falcons made a second-half comeback in that game but lost, 43-37.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org