At this point, Aaron Rodgers’s methodical dissection of the Atlanta Falcons secondary feels inevitable. The same defense that gave up 31 passing touchdowns now has to stop Neo after he learned how to manipulate the matrix. During Green Bay’s current eight-game win streak, Rodgers has thrown 21 touchdowns and one interception at 8.4 yards per attempt for a 117.9 passer rating.
With Rodgers in the zone he’s currently in, defenders turn into practice dummies — faceless bodies that can do little more than try to get in the way. But it’s easy to forget that Rodgers is doing this against defensive schemes that are specifically designed to stop him.
This week, it’s up to Falcons head coach Dan Quinn to figure out a game plan that’s more than just a speed bump. In fact, Quinn has had some success against Rodgers over the past few years. When he was the defensive coordinator, his Seahawks beat the Packers twice in 2014. Then, this season, the Falcons outscored Green Bay 33–32 in Week 8. Except, this isn’t the same Rodgers that Quinn’s Falcons saw earlier this year, and Quinn sure as hell doesn’t have the same defensive talent at his disposal that he had with the Seahawks.
Quite simply, there’s really no blueprint to stopping a quarterback who’s ascended to a higher level of consciousness — but Quinn and Co. still have to try. So, here’s our six-step guide to attempting to stop the unstoppable:
1. Take the ball out of his hands.
The Falcons should take a look at what the Seahawks did against them last weekend: heavily utilize an efficient run game in order to keep the chains moving, the clock running, and the opposing offense on the sideline. They couldn’t maintain the approach for four quarters, but Seattle came out of the gates with a 14-play, 89-yard drive that ate up eight and a half minutes of the opening quarter. The Falcons offense finished sixth in the league in time of possession per drive during the regular season — and after Seattle took that early 7–0, Atlanta clapped back and put together its own 13-play, seven-plus-minute touchdown drive. For the Falcons, the best defense is their historically good offense.
2. Don’t give him any free plays.
It’s one of the few things a defense can control, but it still happens all the time: The defense jumps offside and gives Rodgers a free play. Rodgers loves free plays; don’t give him free plays. Just ask the Cowboys.
Also, don’t try to substitute when he’s running a no-huddle offense. Everyone tries that too, and it never works. Green Bay snaps the ball before your guys get off the field, and Rodgers gets even more free plays.
He’s deadly enough in high-pressure, high-risk situations. Giving Rodgers the opportunity to take shots downfield with no risk of a turnover is like diving headfirst into a volcano.
3. Keep him in the pocket.
It’s not like Rodgers is bad from inside the pocket — far from it — but he’s at his best when he gets outside and has the option to run or pass. We all remember the throw he made to Jared Cook on the sideline to set up the game-winning field goal in Dallas, but he also made this ridiculous throw in the first quarter:
And this in the third:
Rodgers ended the year tied with Jameis Winston for most touchdown passes from outside the pocket (13). Against the Cowboys, he averaged 6.4 yards per attempt and notched an 82.7 passer rating from inside the pocket but finished 7-of-9 for 137 yards and a touchdown at 15.2 yards per attempt and a 146.8 passer rating when he got outside on the edge.
This means that Atlanta will likely try to mush-rush him from the edges. They’ll avoid rushing too aggressively on the edge, sacrificing pressure on the outside in order to make sure he stays in the pocket. And they’ll hope to get some pressure from their interior pass rushers.
4. Disrupt his timing.
The Packers offense is based on precision — and as we saw earlier in the season, when the timing gets thrown off, things can fall apart. When he’s in the pocket, Rodgers needs his receivers to run their exact routes and get to their exact spots at exact right time; if they do, the ball will be waiting for them. If the Falcons can disrupt this timing by pressing with their corners and defensive backs, they could slow Green Bay down. When Dallas switched up to more press coverage on the outside, they had some success. Of course, Dallas got away with several egregious holding penalties, but for Atlanta, it’s worth being overly physical and forcing the refs to make some tough calls against the home team.
Press coverage is dangerous, though. If the receiver gets past the first jam and sufficient help isn’t given downfield, it’s six points. But (1) the Falcons know they’re going to give up plenty of points, so they just have to get more stops than the Green Bay defense, and (2) stopping the best football player on the planet is always going to involve some kind of risk.
5. When he gets outside the pocket, plaster his receivers.
If you drink every time you hear the words “scramble drill” this weekend, you’ll be hammered before the half. Rodgers and the Packers are amazing at post-scheme scramble plays, where the play design breaks down and something resembling backyard football ensues. Except when Rodgers escapes pressure and runs outside the pocket, it’s not as chaotic as you’d think. His receivers all have a set of rules for where they should run when Rodgers scrambles, so he always knows where to look downfield. It’s deadly against any defense, but especially so against a zone:
So, the answer to the scramble drill is for every defender to “plaster” as soon as Rodgers gets outside. Find a guy and stick to him like glue until the play is dead.
6. Be creative with the blitz.
If the Falcons do indeed rush with the goal of keeping Rodgers in the pocket, he’s going to have a lot of time to just sit there and pick apart their coverage. So the Falcons are also going to need to break from their typically conservative identity (during the regular season they blitzed just 20 percent of the time per Pro Football Focus, 30th in the NFL) and blitz the hell out of Rodgers.
The Cowboys did that a few times late in the second quarter and a lot in the second half, and it was effective. After falling behind 21–3 midway through the second quarter, the blitz slowed Rodgers down enough to get the Cowboys offense back into the game.
Late in the third quarter, a well-timed safety blitz off the edge forced Rodgers to get rid of the ball early. Safety Jeff Heath tracked down the inaccurate pass to give Rodgers his first interception in his last 318 passes.
In the fourth quarter, a few more zone blitzes confounded Rodgers enough to keep Dallas in the game. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli sent safety Barry Church and linebacker Sean Lee through the middle while dropping defensive lineman Jack Crawford into a passing lane in an effort to get Rodgers to either force a bad pass or take a sack. It worked.
During the postseason, Rodgers’s splits against the blitz (57 percent completions, 4.9 yards per attempt, one touchdown, one interception, and a 67 passer rating) are in stark contrast to his numbers when he’s not facing a blitz (67 percent completion rate, 10.8 yards per attempt, five touchdowns to no picks, and a 132.5 passer rating). Expect the Falcons to veer from the norm and blitz early and often.
Of course, that’s dangerous too — sending a fifth, sixth, or seventh man in on a blitz means you have fewer defenders deep in coverage. With the way Rodgers is seeing the field and throwing from outside the pocket, if you let him out of your grasp, he’s gonna make you pay.
Then again, there’s not one defensive decision that won’t be dangerous against Rodgers right now. The two-time MVP has shown mastery in every phase of quarterbacking over his last eight games: He’s unbelievably proficient with the pre-snap tricks of the trade. He’s excellent throwing from the pocket, and even more dangerous extending plays and passing from outside of it. When it all breaks down, he can pick up first downs with his legs. Oh, and he’s pretty good with Hail Marys, too.
The good news for the Falcons is that their offense has been pretty unstoppable, too. If Quinn’s defense can just check off one or two of these boxes and get Rodgers to snap out of whatever type of trance he’s been in for a drive or two, it gives them a chance to come out on top. But if they can’t, Atlanta’s going to be just another pit stop on Green Bay’s trip to Houston.