The regular season is expiring, meaning we are a step closer to the playoffs as well as the awarding the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. Aaron Rodgers figures to be a contender for both, with his team having a 9-4 record while sitting atop their division as he puts up elite passing numbers once again.
He’s recorded a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 29:8 thus far while completing nearly 67 percent of his passes, and he has a quarterback rating of 103.7 through 14 weeks. Interestingly enough, these numbers are down from a year ago, when the end zone was the size of a foreign continent and his receivers were always wide open regardless of the coverage, and the Cal alum was simply on fire.
This past Sunday, he went up against the hated Detroit Lions, and Rodgers didn’t play up to his normal standards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time since Week 3 and he completed only 58 percent of his pass attempts, which is only his third time under 60 percent all season. However, he made plays when they were most needed, and one of them was vintage Aaron Rodgers. It was an example of coverage manipulation, as Rodgers toyed with safety Don Carey before delivering a 27-yard strike to a healthy Greg Jennings deep down the right sideline.
After a 29-yard kickoff return to Green Bay’s 38-yard line by Randall Cobb, Rodgers came out with his offense and casually stood in shotgun set. Calm in the coldness, he stood with his hands tucked comfortably in his fancy football fanny pack, watching Cobb motion from the left of the formation to the right while scanning the Lions’ split-field safeties. Then he leaned over, communicated with his offensive line, and freed his hands into the cold air as he received the snap.
Rodgers caught the ball and quickly stepped to his right, eyeballing Cobb and a screen pass, then giving a shoulder fake as he secured the ball with two hands. The shoulder fake got defensive end Cliff Avril off his feet, and deep strong safety Don Carey stood frozen while Rodgers shifted his eyes to the seam.
In that seam tight end Jermichael Finley ran a bend route that split the Cover 2 safeties down the middle. The free safety (top right of screen) didn’t budge from his landmark. But Carey sure did.
After taking false steps downhill, Carey now found himself working to get over the top of the seam route and anticipating a pass that he could potentially make a play on. He was sorely mistaken, however, as it was another treacherous eye from Rodgers.
Once Carey was seen out of position and leaving his cornerback — who passed off Greg Jennings to Carey in order to cover the assigned flat — hanging out in the dry, Rodgers worked back to his left. Deep was Jennings, running freely, raising his hand and waving to get noticed, which he did once Rodgers executed a laser shot.
The play only lasted a few seconds, but the work that Rodgers did in manipulating Carey felt like a blink of an eye, as he quickly worked the pocket, taking deft steps and using his eyes to control the defenseless safety.
Those subtle steps are usually overlooked in this situation because of the eye usage, but they are equally important. That’s because his steps are moving to the direction where the ball will ultimately go to while Rodgers’ eyes were manipulating the defender. Rodgers admitted this in a sit-down last December with ESPN Magazine when he talked about who he watched to improve in this area and where the eyes come into the developmental stages of a quarterback:
It [the eyes] is one of the last things. Tom Clements, our quarterbacks coach, broke down Tom Brady‘s entire season a few years ago, and there were very few times in 550 or so passes when Tom didn’t look a defender off. You have to look guys off to complete passes in the NFL. But when you study Tom, you learn it’s about the feet as much as the eyes. When you look a guy off, your feet already have to be lined up where you plan to throw, but your eyes have to go to the target late.
He continued when explaining that it’s not always about making the defender completely go in the wrong direction. A simple and subtle shift of their weight in the wrong direction can lead to success:
Not even a step. Just to shift his weight the wrong way, to lean one way or the other. It’s all about windows. Creating windows. Moving guys to create windows to throw into. The windows are so much smaller in the pros than in college. So you have to use everything — including your eyes — to move a linebacker or a safety or a defender curling out into the flat just to get him to step to his left in order to throw to a guy open behind him.
Although Rodgers’ claim is valid, he’s gotten quite good at forcing safeties to take missteps. Carey was a victim, and the rest of the young quarterbacks in the NFL should be witnesses.