In his conversation with ESPN’s Bob Holtzman Sunday, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers talked about the importance of a good memory to playing his position.
“I think it’s important for a quarterback to have a good memory,” Rodgers said. “To be able to recall things very quickly when you’re breaking the huddle, when you’re at the line of scrimmage, things you’ve seen on film, things you saw at practice.”
If there was any doubt about said memory, Rodgers put it rest today when he spoke with ESPN Milwaukee’s Jason Wilde for his weekly radio hit.
Wilde asked Rodgers about a specific play—the play we’ll diagram below with Rodgers’ help—and the Packers quarterback was able to rattle off detail after detail about the entire look. Rodgers went on to do the same for two other plays, including one that came from the Packers preseason opener in San Diego.
It probably goes without saying that Rodgers’ mental acuity in remembering every minute detail of a specific play from weeks earlier has helped him become what he is today, the best player at the hardest position in professional sports.
Below, Rodgers will help us break down a play that should have went for an easy Packers touchdown.
The situation: Second preseason game vs. Cleveland Browns, 1st-and-10 from the 23-yard line.
“The first play was actually one of our playaction, down the field beaters,” Rodgers told Wilde. “We had just gotten a turnover and wanted to take a shot on the first play. They played Cover-2, so Joe [Haden] had some safety help.”
Here’s the pre-snap screen grab:
There’s nothing fancy about the Packers’ offensive look or what the Browns countered with defensively. Green Bay goes two receivers—Jordy Nelson to the right (top) of the formation and Donald Driver split out left (bottom)—with D.J. Williams in the slot right and Tom Crabtree joining Alex Green in the Packers’ backfield. Rodgers stands in the shotgun.
The Browns give Rodgers a standard 4-3 look, with two safeties deep and press on both receivers.
In the screen grab below, we see Rodgers use play-action with Green.
The weakside linebacker crashes in to play the run fake, while the mike linebacker turns his shoulders and begins running up field to cover the middle portion of the field. We see Brian Urlacher do this in the Chicago Bears’ Tampa-2 defense routinely. If he didn’t already, Rodgers should now have a clear idea what kind of defense he’s looking at and the matchups he has outside. Both corners press the receivers at the line while Williams gets a free release in the slot.
Rodgers told Wilde that his first look off the playaction was the “Zebra” or slot receiver, which is Williams in this case. But given the positioning of both linebackers and the deep safety, this would have been an impossible throw. There’s underneath and over the top support to cover the route.
As you can see here, Rodgers continues looking down the seam to keep the safety inside. Meanwhile, Nelson has successfully turned the hips of Haden (circled) with a masterful plant-and-dip move to the inside. Rodgers may not know it yet, but Nelson is about to run free down the sidelines with the safety already sucked inside.
In this screen grab, it’s clear Nelson has a step or two on Haden. The throw to Williams becomes even more difficult as the safety cheats in a step or two to close down the route. Little does the safety know, Rodgers has manipulated his every move with his eyes. He’s now out of position to help Haden, who did little to impede Nelson underneath.
Driver is also running free down the near sidelines, but the safety (who you can’t see in the picture) remains in position to bracket any potential throw. The route concept wasn’t designed to work against Driver’s side of the field, and Rodgers never even looks to his left.
Look where the safety is (or isn’t, actually) now. You can’t even see him in the picture because his focus remains on Williams, who was actually successfully covered by the retreating middle linebacker. Whoops.
Nelson has at least 12 yards of separation between him and the safety, which should be about twice what Rodgers needs to complete this throw with ease. As you can see, the ball is already in flight from Rodgers. The protection around him was mostly intact, as LT Marshall Newhouse pushes away the defensive end who got too far up field on his initial speed rush.
All Rodgers needed to do now was put the ball in Nelson’s catching radius and it’s 7-0 Packers after just two plays from scrimmage. As you can see here, the ball is thrown with a little too much behind it.
Rodgers made an interesting comment when he said it was more a “spot” throw, where he doesn’t really see the receiver but throws it to a particular spot he feels as the play unfolds. It just came out too hot. Wilde also mentions the footwork issue for Nelson, which isn’t clear on this screen grab but shows up on the moving film. It looks like Nelson mistimes his jump and ends up launching from the wrong foot too late. Still, Rodgers admits that the throw should have been there.
Of course, two plays, Rodgers completes this throw to Nelson to make up for the missed opportunity. He rattled off this look to Wilde, too. In short: Rodgers breaks his eyes off the initial look to Williams, who gets jammed down field (illegally) before making his out route. That left Rodgers to step up and unleash a frozen rope to Nelson, who snatches the throw off the top of Haden’s lid. Good coverage, even better throw and catch.
I apologize if breaking down a meaningless preseason play in this much detail was an exercise in putting you to sleep. But I thought it was interesting in the context of Rodgers’ spot-on assessments today.
While it took us moving pictures and screen grabs to grasps the entirety of the play, Rodgers was able to give Wilde a detailed response that accurately described a play from two weeks prior. I guess that’s just one of a million reasons why he’s winning NFL hardware and I’m sitting behind a keyboard.