Historically speaking, Aaron Rodgers has been nothing short of a nightmare to the Minnesota Vikings. In his last 10 meetings against the Vikings – following his two losses to Brett Favre and the 2009 Vikings – he has a record of 9-1. In his last eight games, he has thrown 24 touchdowns with just one interception.
Perhaps most germane to the recurring theme of the 2015 Vikings, in the 14 starts Rodgers has made against the Vikings, his team has scored 31 or more points in six of them and his teams have never scored less than 23 points in any of his starts. The Vikings have prided themselves on not allowing more than 23 points in any game this season and 20 or less in all but the Denver game.
There is no doubting that, of all the talented quarterbacks the Vikings have faced this year, the most formidable challenge they will face is Rodgers, who has owned the Vikings since 2010.
“He’s a very special player,” Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “That’s especially true at the quarterback position. He’s one of the best in the league. He can make every throw. He can look you off and throw the other. He can run. We’ve definitely got our hands full this week.”
With most quarterbacks who are dual threats with their arms and their legs, it all starts up front. Defensive end Brian Robison is no stranger to Rodgers. He’s played the Packers twice a year since becoming a starter in 2011 (three times in 2012) and knows exactly what qualities Rodgers uses to confound defenders.
Topping the defensive priority list is not allowing Rodgers to escape the pocket. He doesn’t run read option plays, but does so much with his feet to either escape sacks, extend plays or take advantage of wide open spaces that result from receivers running deep routes and vacating a large portion of the field.
Rodgers can beat you with his arm or his legs. Robison believes the key is keeping him from having freedom of movement.
“We have to be really smart in our rush lanes,” Robison said. “Any time you get in man coverage or things like that, that’s when he can really hurt you with his legs. Up front, we just have to be smart in how we rush him – keep him in the pocket and collapse the pocket on him. They’ve got a good O-line there that protects him really well. We’ve got our work cut out for us this week. We just have to be very smart.”
The Packers are coming off three straight losses, two of which came against defenses that were able to get physical with their receivers. Denver was expected because its calling card has been defense all season. Detroit was much more of a surprise last week. The last time the Lions beat Green Bay in Wisconsin, Brett Favre was a rookie – with Atlanta.
In a copycat league, the Vikings have seen that, when jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, the Packers have struggled to get open and give Rodgers a clean throwing lane to get the ball to them. Munnerlyn and his teammates have watched the film and are planning a game plan that will include a lot of bump and run coverage.
“You have to be able to disrupt these receivers,” Munnerlyn said. “The defensive line has to get after him. (Detroit) kept them from scoring. It’s kind of tough to keep them from scoring. We all have to be ready for what he’s planning on doing and make sure we all do our jobs. It takes everyone playing together to keep him from making plays. That starts with getting in the face of their receivers at the snap and not giving them a free release.”
The wild card Rodgers brings to the table is his ability to keep plays alive – even when it comes on a play where he looks dead to rights to be going down for a sack.
“You’ve got to expect the unexpected with him,” Robison said. “He has such a knack for moving around the pocket and doing a lot of things with his feet – not so much to create plays running the ball, but to be able to complete the ball down the field with those deep throws.”
Much like his predecessor in Green Bay, Rodgers learned the art of moving in the pocket from Favre. You don’t always have to run when the bullets are flying around you. Sometimes a step or two forward or laterally can buy the extra second or two needed to make a big play downfield.
The Vikings are familiar with Rodgers’ innate pocket awareness, and as they prepare for him Sunday, they will be doing so forcing defensive backs and linebackers to stick with receivers longer than they typically have to because Rodgers can extend plays on his own and turn what would look like a sack into a back-breaking gain.
“You definitely have to expect to stick with a receiver longer than you usually would,” Munnerlyn said. “The coaches have already talked to the scout team guys about extending plays and staying in coverage. You’ve got to keep your eyes on your luggage. He’s going to throw if his guy’s open and we know that. We’ve to go out there and play at a high level.”
The Broncos and Lions have given the rest of the league a blueprint as to how to prevent Rodgers from dominating a game. Both of them were able to use pressure from the secondary to keep Rodgers from being able to find open receivers. As a smart player, Rodgers doesn’t take many unnecessary risks, so he will likely be holding the ball until a receiver opens up. If that doesn’t happen, the Vikings’ front four is convinced it can do its job in finishing plays before Rodgers wants them to.
“If we’re able to do that, it gives us an opportunity to win against a very good football team,” Robison said. “If we don’t, that’s when he can hurt us.”