December 10, 2012

I know how to stop Aaron Rodgers

By Matt Wilson

Here is Wilson as a kid watching the Packers 

As many of you know, I am a huge Green Bay Packers fan. I could not put a date on when I started cheering for the Packers. What I can tell you is that when the Packers played the Patriots in the Super Bowl in 4th grade, I was the only person in the school rooting against Drew Bledsoe. My fandom started because of Brett Favre, but I was on the bandwagon to switch QBs after Favre was picked by the Giants in the NFC championship game. Since I am a big Packers fan, I have watched just about every one of Rodgers starts in his career. Sometimes life and living in New England has made it a bit more challenging, but there are very few that I have missed.

Wilson is a part owner of the GB Packers
All that was just to give you a little background my grounds for discussing a topic that has bothered me for a few years – Aaron Rodgers is not very good against a Cover 2 defense. This is relevant for those of you that might own Aaron Rodgers in fantasy as he is facing the Chicago Bears, who almost exclusively play Cover 2, in the next week of your fantasy postseason. I am starting to write the introduction to this blog without analyzing any stats and am just going by the eyeball test.

Basic Cover 2 Defense
Before I do lack at the stats, here is a little information about the Cover 2. I have heard analysts refer to it in a number of different ways this year as there is some variation, but the key aspect is that you play two deep safeties. These safeties are tasked with covering half the field each without letting an offensive player behind them. Underneath there are a couple options – 1) you can man up on each receiver and basically double team anything deep or 2) you can play a complete zone and take away the passing lanes. In order for a Cover 2 to work, it is important for the defensive line to be able to generate a pass rush without blitzing. Sometimes you will hear Chris Collinsworth call the coverage a two deep shell, or hear the analysts talk about bumping at the line of scrimmage because they have help over the top – it’s all about Cover 2. Sure, there are more technicalities to the Cover 2 than what I have described, but it gives you a basic concept. The Cover 2 is designed to take away the deep ball.

1 of Jody's loooong TD catches

Now if you watched the Packers at all last year, it is likely that you saw Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson running free deep down the field; the big play was a critical part of the Packers 15-1 season. This year those deep plays have been few and far between. Last year the Packers had nine touchdowns of over 40 yards; this year they have four so far. Not a huge drop off you might say, but two of those 40+ yard touchdowns are to Tom Crabtree on plays where he got free underneath and had huge runs after the catch. Jordy Nelson has the other two touchdowns of over 40 yards; he had five last season. Injuries can be blamed for some of the lack of big play production, but it all ties in with the Cover 2.

Here is Aaron Rodgers average game started in his career (not counting the game in 2010 where he sustained a concussion against the Lions in the first half):
278 yards passing on 23 for 34 passing (67% completion percentage) with 2.1 touchdowns and 0.6 interceptions per game.

Now his career averages against the Bears (who have played Cover 2 every game since Rodgers became a starter):

244 yards passing on 22 for 32 passing (68% completion percentage) with 1.8 touchdowns and 0.7 interceptions per game.

Games Against the Bears Chart below

As you can see, most of the time he is very ordinary against the Bears. His 2011 game on Christmas stands out as a statistical anomaly that makes the numbers look a little more respectable. If you take that one game out, his averages look like this:

239 yards passing on 23 for 33 passing (69% completion percentage) with 1.4 touchdowns and 0.8 interceptions per game.

Suddenly, you have made Aaron Rodgers look like a very average quarterback. The one stat you might see and think “he’s actually better in some ways against the Bears” is his completion percentage. Yes, you are correct, his completion percentage is up because he is still a very intelligent quarterback. That intelligence tells him to take the short stuff that is available, but that makes him Checkdown Chad Pennington against the Cover 2, and hardly the 2011 NFL MVP.

The reason the Bears have been able to do this so effectively are the elements of their defense. Their safeties are not superstars, but they can still cover their respective sides of the field. Charles Tillman is an excellent physical corner who can make plays on the ball with help over the top. Tim Jennings, who has historically sucked, has supposedly been a shutdown corner this season. They have a pass rush generated by Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije, Henry Melton, and Shea McClellin (James’ editor note: BBBB BOISE STATE!). In the past, they had similar variables like Tommy Harris (when he was still good), Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye, and Mark Anderson. These defensive lines could get pressure without a blitz. Then, perhaps most critical of all, they had linebackers that could make plays. Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Nick Roach are all athletic enough to cover the pass and still stop the run. They are not the same now as they were in the past, but you can understand where it could be critical. The middle linebacker is especially critical as he is responsible for covering the middle of the field; even if that means covering 30 yards during field. It takes the right kind of athlete to take that away and Brian Urlacher is that type of player (at least he used to be).

Giants D line gave Brady NO time last Super Bowl
For examples outside of the Bears, look at the Giants in the playoffs last year. Strong defensive line play from Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, etc., bump coverage from Corey Webster and Aaron Ross, and athletic linebacking from Michael Boley, Jacquian Williams, and Chase Blackburn. Beyond the offensive line, Blackburn was critical here. He only started a handful of games, but was a difference maker. He intercepted Aaron Rodgers in the regular season and intercepted Tom Brady in the Super Bowl while running down field with Rob Gronkowski.

The Giants were the same deal this season, but you can also look at the Seattle Seahawks. While we all know the Packers got screwed in that game, it was the Seahawks defensive formula that made the game close enough to come down to the last play. The Seahawks had strong defensive line in Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, etc, some physical roided up corners in Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, and athletic linebackers like Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright.

All these elements are what make San Francisco’s defense so dominant as well. The strong defensive line of Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, the athletic linebacker ability of Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, and physical coverage on the outside by Tarrell Brown and Carlos Rogers make San Francisco very difficult to deal with. As you hear every week, the ability to rush the passer without blitzing is devastating. Bill Belichick knows this and has been frustrating Patriots fans for years by trying to execute this defense, but has lacked the personnel to do so.

So surely there must be weaknesses in the Cover 2 defense or else everyone would play it, right? Absolutely. The first way to break down the Cover 2 is by running the football. This is where Aaron Rodgers has been at an unfortunate disadvantage – the Packers running game has been awful. If you cannot force the safeties to be honest against the run, the ability to go down field will be taken away. The Packers won the Super Bowl two years ago because James Starks was just enough of a threat to allow Rodgers to use the play-action effectively.

Can Alex Green keep the Safties honest?
This brings us to the second factor in being able to beat the Cover 2 – an offensive line. If you have an offensive line that can give the quarterback time, receivers are going to get open. It is virtually impossible to cover someone for more than a few seconds, so time to throw typically allows an opportunity to find the holes in the defense. Alternatively, it allows a mobile quarterback time to create. If Rodgers can avoid getting mauled right away, his mobility typically allows him to make something out of nothing. You can’t sit in a Cover 2 and spy the quarterback in the backfield without leaving somebody open. The problem that the Packers have is the injuries to their offensive line. They already lost both of their starting tackles (Brian Bulaga and Derek Sherrod) for the season. With those injuries, TJ Lang moves from guard to tackle to start opposite Marshall Newhouse. Right now, the Packers are protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blind side with a 5th round pick from last year’s draft. On top of that, Lang got hurt so they are using and undrafted guard, Don Barclay, as their right tackle. In their win on Sunday night, the Packers started three backup offensive linemen plus a 37 year old Jeff Saturday. This is the anti-beating the Cover 2 recipe.

The guy that is usually open? The tight end. This is part of the reason the tight end if so critical in the modern NFL. If you have an athlete like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, or Aaron Hernandez, you can take advantage of those middle linebackers in a Cover 2 shell. The Packers have someone that is in that class of athleticism in Jermichael Finley, but he has been wildly inconsistent. A tight end that can run like a receiver is an enormous mismatch for any linebacker; even when Brian Urlacher was in his prime, he could not be expected to shut down someone like Antonio Gates (also no longer in his prime).

Most teams have caught on to how to stop the Packers this season. His last four fantasy weeks since the Packers bye week have resulted in 17, 12, 17, and 15 point weeks (he scored 12 against the Bears in Week 2). The weird thing is that this has been the way to beat the Packers since Rodgers took the starting job. Rodgers is actually 7-2 against the Bears, but that has more to do with the fact that he has been starting against Kyle Orton and Jay Cutler than it does his own effectiveness. Every time it is Bears week, I get a little bit nervous because I know it is just a bad matchup for the Packers. Not having an offensive line to stop Julius Peppers, counting on James Starks, Ryan Grant, Alex Green, DuJuan Harris to get a run game going, and knowing Jermichael Finley will drop a wide open touchdown makes for frustrating Sundays. These are just the basic facts. I have hardly even touched on the fact that Rodgers just does not look like himself when faced with a Cover 2 shell.

So now it’s Week 15 and you wonder if you play Aaron Rodgers in hopes of making it to your own Super/Shiva Bowl. I say yes, you have to play him. This was a consensus Top 3 pick in most fantasy drafts. Who are you benching him for? I know, I just wrote almost four pages in Microsoft Word telling you why Rodgers cannot play against the Cover 2, but you have to have faith in the guy that brought you to the dance. You don’t get cute in the playoffs unless you’re a huge underdog. But here is the reason I feel better and better each week about Rodgers against the Cover 2…

Cobb the new Harvin? 

The new and in vogue way of beating the Cover 2 is by using a player with off the charts quickness in the slots and trying to get him matched up with a linebacker. The pioneer was Bill Belichick (not a surprise) with Wes Welker. He needed a way to consistently beat Tony Dungy’s Cover 2 in Indianapolis, so that’s where this idea originated. Percy Harvin and Darren Sproles also jump into my mind as true “Cover 2 beaters”. The Packers, of course, have developed Percy Harvin Junior in Randall Cobb. For some reason I will never understand, Cobb had just one carry and one reception against the Bears in Week 2 this season. He also had just four receptions for 39 yards against the Giants, and one catch for -1 yards against the Seahawks. Against Indianapolis, Cobb had four catches for 82 yards – the problem was they did not use him more often. He is a total matchup nightmare. If you want to see how the Packers are 9-4, look at the games where Cobb has been productive. With the exception of the first game against San Francisco (which the Packers were a Jordy Nelson dropped pass away from tying, and scoring 22 against San Francisco isn’t too shabby), the Packers win when Cobb performs. Watching last night’s game made it clear to me that Aaron Rodgers understands this. Greg Jennings had one catch, James Jones two, Jermichael Finley two, and Cobb had seven.

Jordy Nelson is expected back in the lineup next week, which means Nelson and Jennings will draw Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings on the outside, which will allow Cobb and Finley to run free across the middle. If the running game can just be serviceable, the Packers are capable of lighting up a Bears team that has lost four of its last five. If the Packers win next week, they will clinch the NFC North, so it’s tough to believe they will come out flat. Plus, with the Falcons proving they are beatable, and the 49ers facing trips to New England and Seattle – the Packers still somehow have an outside shot at the #1 seed. If I realize this, you know the Packers realize this. Do you really want to doubt the Discount Double Check?

But I digress. While I have shown you the way to beat Aaron Rodgers, I have also shown how Rodgers can overcome it. For your fantasy playoff decisions, your faith in Aaron Rodgers should be tied to your faith in Randall Cobb. I am an Aaron Rodgers owner (both in fantasy and in reality – Go Pack Go!), and I will definitely be starting Rodgers this week.

James is debating starting Josh Freeman over Aaron Rodgers. There is no question that by the matchups, Josh Freeman has a better matchup; the Saints defense sucks. Freeman threw for 420 yards and three TDs against the Saints earlier this season, so he must be a stud. In fact, last year when Freeman sucked, he threw for at least 280 yards each game against the Saints as well. Here’s the difference – Doug Martin. (James’ editor note: BBBB BOISE STATE!) Greg Schiano fully trusts his workhorse now and having a good running game is critical on the road. If you have watched the Saints play at home, you know they are another team all together in that dome. If I am Tampa and had their porous pass defense, the last thing I want is Drew Brees on the field any more than he has to be. So how do you achieve that? Milk the clock with the run game. But can the Saints be run on? Yes – yes they can. Opponents are averaging 150 yards rushing against the Saints this year, which means the Saints have the worst rush defense in the NFL. The upside is there for Josh Freeman, but you can’t bench your stud for a guy that the Buccaneers would rather not use if they had their way. Rodgers is on your team to be a monster; don’t outsmart yourself. If you have Rodgers, I can’t justify benching him unless you have someone named Brady, Brees, or Manning as well. The upside is just too high.

Freeman and Rodgers embrace after a game

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