All of the building hype surrounding Monday's battle with the Green Bay Packers has centered on Brett Favre's first game against his former team. But on the other side of the ball stands Favre's replacement, Aaron Rodgers. While Favre has garnered most of the notice, the "other guy" in the QB equation is going to look at Monday's contest as his own statement game.
After three years of serving as Favre's apprentice, when Favre announced his retirement after the 2007 season, the Packers moved full steam ahead with Rodgers as their franchise quarterback. While the Packers struggled in 2008, falling from 13-3 the year before to 6-10 last season, you couldn't pin the blame on Rodgers. In his first season as a starter, he threw for more than 4,000 yards with 28 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Nothing has changed this year. Despite being pressured often because of an unstable offensive line, Rodgers has thrown 90 passes without an interception. He has quickly established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFC and clearly has the attention of the Vikings defense.
What makes Rodgers so dangerous is not just his cannon arm but also his ability to make plays with his legs. He instinctively feels the pass rush and is able to buy time in the pocket by rolling out and delivering the ball on target. The key, according to defensive tackle Pat Williams, is to make him roll to his left, where he is much less natural or effective.
"Basically, he likes rolling to his right and does pretty good when he does," Williams said. "What we have to do is keep him from getting outside. When he rolls to his right, he's really good. When he has to roll to his left he can't throw it as good. If he is going to move, we want to make sure it's to his left."
The problem for defenders is that, when Rodgers is on the move, he is still looking to make plays with his arm and not simply flee the pocket and run to an open area. Safety Madieu Williams said that when Rodgers is on the move, he is still looking to make plays – forcing players in the secondary to stay with their man because he can make something out of nothing.
"Aaron is a playmaker back there," Williams said. "We know what he brings to the table. He hasn't thrown a lot of picks, but some other D-lines have been effective getting pressure on him. Hopefully, we can force him into bad throws. He's a smart quarterback in being able to figure out where the rush is coming from first and foremost and using that ability to sidestep a guy that's coming and making a throw downfield. The thing he does so well is that, even though he feels the rush, he looks downfield, finds his guy and makes good throws."
The key to changing that trend is going to be to bring the heat, whether it's from the pass rushers or on blitzes. Jared Allen is going to have the job of rattling Rodgers from his blind side and he said the best way to neutralize him is to get him thinking too much.
"You've got to get pressure and create quick throws," Allen said. "You've got to hit him and hopefully create some nervousness back there. As a professional quarterback, it's his job to stay cool and make throws. He does a good job doing that."
On the other side (Rodgers' right side), perhaps even more of the onus will be placed on Ray Edwards. It's clear that Rodgers is much more comfortable rolling to his right and Edwards will have the responsibility of keeping him caged in the pocket. Many others in his position have failed, but the growing familiarity with what Rodgers does well and what he doesn't will be key to containing him.
"He's just a great athlete and we have to be aware of that," Edwards said. "A lot of quarterbacks, if you get them on the move they aren't very effective. He makes plays when he's pushed out of the pocket. We have to contain him and not let him get outside and make plays. Jeff Garcia did that a lot last year and hurt us. If we can shut down his alleys to run, we can stop him that way."
As the days and hours tick down to kickoff, the media saturation will focus on Favre, but Rodgers may have even more to prove than No. 4 does playing against his former teammates for the first time. Rodgers has emerged from Favre's shadow and is ready to begin his own quarterbacking legacy. The Vikings defense is focused on not allowing that to happen with a national audience tuning in on Monday night.
"We've had a couple of chances already to see what he can do," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "He's showed why he was a first-round draft pick and the guy they were grooming to replace Brett. Our goal, especially on third downs, will be to make sure he doesn't have time. He's very good with not turning the ball over, but any time you force a quarterback to throw when he's not ready, good things happen defensively. We can't let him have time and that will be our focus."
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