Through four games, the Packers have created two defensive players of the week and two of the top three sackers in the league. That Aaron Rodgers was able to conduct his postgame press conference at the Metrdome from his feet was the biggest upset of the night after he had absorbed an eight-sack pounding.
"They got after me a little bit," Rodgers said after the game in a huge understatement. "It was a combination of maybe extra effort on their part, nobody being open and me not getting the ball out of my hands probably as quick as I could of."
Rodgers is walking a pain-for-gain tight rope between making plays and taking a beating. His ability to extend plays has resulted in a few big plays this season, and it's a big reason why Rodgers is tied for the NFL lead with 11 completions of at least 25 yards.
His 62-yard touchdown pass to Jermichael Finley, for instance, came when Rodgers escaped pressure and Finley broke open when the safety bit on Rodgers' potential to run. Ditto for the fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson, in which Rodgers broke from pressure off both edges and hit Nelson on the run.
"He's had some success running around and making plays with his feet," quarterbacks coach Tom Clements said on Tuesday. "It's a fine line between trying to do that and knowing when to check it down."
After reviewing the game, Rodgers was to blame for three of the sacks, mostly when the Vikings had covered what were supposed to be quick-hitting passes. But by and large, the problems fall almost completely at the feet of the offensive line.
The first sack, on the first drive of the game, was that pain-for-gain tight rope. With Rodgers feeling pressure against right tackle Allen Barbre, he tried to roll to his left. Fill-in left tackle Daryn Colledge attempted to cut-block Allen to the turf but Allen sensed it and stayed on his feet. Rodgers, expecting Allen to be out of the play, ran right into him and coughed it up for a turnover that took at least three points off the scoreboard.
One way the Packers were hoping to beat the Vikings' pass rush was with an extensive use of rollouts to create a moving pocket. Rollouts and bootlegs, however, work only with a little help from a defense that pursues too aggressively to a run fake. But on the first play of the second quarter, Rodgers rolled to his left but linebacker Ben Leber wasn't fooled by a fake to Ryan Grant and flew in untouched for the Vikings' second sack.
Rodgers is sacked by Brian Robison. Jim Mone/AP
The Vikings' third sack of the night was one of those that Rodgers held the ball far too long. But broader blame falls on an offense without a third-down back with Brandon Jackson out for a fourth consecutive game with a high-ankle sprain. On first down, Rodgers' dump to the flat was dropped by DeShawn Wynn. So on third-and-5, when Rodgers was pressured, he elected not to throw the ball to Wynn and he wound up getting sacked by Allen. The Packers punted, and the Vikings scored to take a 21-14 halftime lead.
Down 28-14 after Minnesota scored to open the third quarter, Rodgers took five sacks. Call it a case of being down two scores against a team that seemingly could score at will against the Packers' off-balance defense.
"You have to fight that impluse because that's when you can get into trouble. It's a fine line," Clements said.
That fine line was crossed after the Packers' only possession of the third quarter ended on a fourth-and-goal drop in the end zone by Donald Lee. The next time Rodgers saw the ball was with 12:53 remaining in the game. Still down 28-14, Rodgers had little choice but to cross his fingers and hope for an extra split-second to make something happen. He wound up taking three sacks in the fourth quarter, including one for a sack on third-and-10 with 7:21 remaining in the game. Giving up a safety, of course, isn't ideal, but at that point, what good does it do to throw the ball away?
"There is a point in time where you're behind the clock and you have to take some chances that you otherwise wouldn't, but you have to be careful when you do that," Clements said.
Fortunately, the bye came at a good time. Daryn Colledge, who officially has given up 4.5 sacks, should be back at left guard with the return of veteran left tackle Chad Clifton. Rodgers will get some time to heal, and the Packers have games against Detroit and Cleveland to work out some kinks before hosting the Vikings on Nov. 1. Both the Lions and Browns are in the middle of the pack with seven sacks.
"Well, it would definitely help," coach Mike McCarthy said of getting Clifton back. "That's the strength of Chad Clifton. He's our starting left tackle, has been here for a long time, and just the way we're designed on offense, he falls into a category as a skill position. Your left tackle has to block the Jared Allens of the world. That's the way we're designed. I think it will definitely help. But it's just not one guy. It's really the combination of some of the things in the protection unit that we need to do a better job of, and frankly, some of it falls on the quarterback decision and his time clock. He's making a lot of good plays with his feet, but it also has caught us sometimes. That's the thing with this extra time and the self-scout we need to go through."
McCarthy's right in saying that it's "just not one guy." Veteran lineman Jason Spitz was whipped for a third-quarter sack by journeyman defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy. Clifton wasn't unbeatable during his game-and-a-half. And Mark Tauscher was solid but far from untouchable last year before a season-ending knee injury.
"What you miss is experience and someone who's done it for a long time," offensive line coach James Campen said of Clifton. "Certainly, we make no excuses. Whoever's out there's got to block. That's for all five, it's not just one position."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.