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Breaking Down Negative Decisions Made by Aaron Rodgers vs. 49ers

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Breaking Down Negative Decisions Made by Aaron Rodgers vs. 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers may have allowed over 300 yards to reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, but Vic Fangio's unit put on a clinic in stopping the Green Bay Packers quarterback Sunday.

While the 49ers have the talent on defense to make any quarterback look average, it was the way Fangio's assorted looks were disguised in the pre-snap period that was the most impressive. Rodgers, one of the best minds in the game at the quarterback position, was unable to decipher many of the defenses he saw before the snap.

The coverages and blitzes were mixed and hidden. To his credit, Rodgers made some improvisational plays to combat his struggles in reading the defenses in the pre-snap.

In the following film breakdown, I take a look at some of the negative decisions Rodgers made against the 49ers Sunday because his pre-snap read wasn't correct.


The first comes at as the first half is coming to a close. Down six, Rodgers and the Packers are attempting to get into field goal range. It's 3rd-and-8 with 39 seconds left. Both Green Bay and San Francisco have a timeout remaining.

Here's the pre-snap screengrab:

The 49ers are playing a three-man front with their linebackers back. It's a soft look, designed to ensure no big plays happen down the field that could get the Packers into field goal range. Rodgers just wants to get a first down to continue the drive, especially with one timeout left in his backpocket.

Rodgers probably thinks he's going to have an easy pitch-and-catch to either Jordy Nelson (running a 12-yard hitch route) or Greg Jennings, who has a simple 8-yard out in front of the coverage. The Packers just want a first down here. Yet the 49ers don't play soft coverage, and they are all over the underneath stuff to both Jennings and Nelson.

Rodgers buys time to his left—the only way he looked this entire play—but nothing is open. Jennings is bracketed and there's no window to get the football to Nelson beyond the sticks. Rodgers breaks contain of the pocket but flicks the ball out of bounds, stopping the clock with 34 ticks remaining.

The 49ers don't have to use a timeout, which ultimately helps them get David Akers into position for his 63-yard field goal. The unawareness of the defense obviously contributes to the field goal attempt (everyone in the stadium but the 11 Packers defenders knew Colin Kaepernick was running the football), but Rodgers' brain fart didn't help here. Part of confusion was the 49ers' coverage not being what Rodgers likely envisioned pre-snap.

The second example is a play that has been widely discussed. The situation is third-and-1 on the Packers first offensive possession of the second half, with Green Bay down 16-7.

Following a time out, the Packers come out in a double tight end, I-formation look. Nelson is split out wide to the right. The 49ers counter by bringing nine men into the box, including safety Donte Whitner, who is cheating up in the pre-snap read. Rodgers likely thinks he'll have a good shot at getting Nelson one-on-one with no safety help over the top.

The play call is a staple of the Packers offense, with a play-action fake to the back and a backside deep post off Rodgers' rollout. You'd need two hands to count how many times Rodgers has thrown a touchdown on this exact play.

But the single coverage here never happens. Dashon Goldson (circled in first screen grab), plays the single-high safety and brackets Nelson the entire way. Despite the double coverage, Rodgers winds up and heaves a prayer.

But let's take a look at his other options just before releasing the ball. Jermichel Finley appears to be breaking open in the middle of the field, although there is a defender spying in the area. It would have been a difficult throw, but one Rodgers could make. In the right flat, John Kuhn has some space and would likely have a first down underneath. Even the protection is very good, as the 49ers bring just three men. Rodgers could have attacked the first down marker to the right side to make the linebacker in charge of that zone choose whether he wanted to pursue Rodgers or cover Kuhn. Again, probably another first down as a result.

Yet Rodgers takes a shot at the big play, and the Packers are forced to punt when the ball falls harmlessly to the turf. While the team needed a spark down nine points, it also needed to stay on the field. The 49ers took over and marched down the field for another touchdown, extending their lead to 23-7. Maybe the Packers get some points on this drive if they convert the first down, maybe they don't. But this decision from Rodgers didn't give his team that chance. Part of that decision was likely not getting what Rodgers wanted in the 49ers' pre-snap look.

One final play in this breakdown, and it has to be Rodgers' back-breaking interception in the fourth quarter. The situation: Green Bay had just received a defensive stop after cutting the 49ers lead to eight points. The Packers' offense has 1st-and-10 from their own 25-yard line.

There's nothing fancy about either look, offense or defense. The Packers go I-formation with three receivers, and the 49ers counter with their base 3-4 defense. NaVorro Bowman, the inside linebacker who makes the interception, is circled here. To the left of the screen grab, outside linebacker Aldon Smith is lining up over Jennings in the left slot. This has zone written all over it.

Here's what Rodgers sees just moments after the snap. Bowman has attacked up, and it appears as if he's going to trail Kuhn into the flat. I'll bet that's exactly what Rodgers saw. Jennings then has a free release and easily works past Smith, who is completely flat-footed in this screen grab. Patrick Willis, the other inside linebacker to the right, hasn't yet cheated over and appears to be spying Cedric Benson, who is retreating out of the backfield. Even the safeties appear out of position to make a break. At this point, this play looks like it could be one of the easier pitch-and-catches between Rodgers and Jennings down the inside seam.

Rodgers is completely fooled into the decision. Bowman dumps off Kuhn to Smith, who is sitting in a soft zone. Bowman treats vertically, sitting directly between Rodgers and Jennings. The weakside safety has recognized the play in time and is making a run towards Jennings. Just as Rodgers is releasing the football, this has disaster written all over it.

The pending back-breaker is now in motion. Bowman has an easy interception coming his way. But even if Bowman can't get his hands on this football, one of two things is going to happen. Either the charging safety is going to get an interception here, or Jennings is going to absorb a big hit. The moving picture makes it appear as if the safety is winding up for a hit. But the real damage here is Bowman, who perfectly disguised his every move to Rodgers.

The result is one of the worst decisions we've seen from Rodgers in probably 25-30 games. As I've said before, it was an awful decision at the absolutely worst time. Instead of moving down for a tying score with time of the fourth-quarter clock, Rodgers got to watch on the sidelines as Frank Gore bowled his way into the end zone on the very next play to extend the lead back out to two scores. The Packers got their chances later on, but this was the game-changing play.

We haven't seen many defenses confused Rodgers for 60 minutes like the 49ers did Sunday. It was a clinic in defensive playcalling, disguise and execution. Fangio certainly made the God-like Rodgers look mortal in Week 1.

Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at [email protected]

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (39) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Chad Toporski's picture

Bowman's ability to quickly change direction and back pedal into coverage made that interception possible.

Beep's picture

Nick Perry, please take notes...

Chad Toporski's picture

I was thinking more like Hawk and Smith...

Bercovici's picture

Great analysis of the interception. Seems like Fangio found a way to turn one of Rodgers' primary strengths -- his photographic memory for defensive looks -- into a liability. Now he'll have to do a double-take before targeting a receiver he previously identified as coming open.

shirk's picture

Zach, *love* these breakdowns you're doing. They're hugely educational for those of us trying to gain more insight into how the game actually looks to those on the field (as opposed to how easy hindsight makes the decisions look from our armchairs... :-)). Keep up the great work!

Kevin Lamb's picture

Great job on breaking down the interception. Loved it. Keep up the great work.

MarkinMadison's picture

Love the 3rd and 1 breakdown. Nice job.

Erik's picture

Makes me sick but really great insight. Thanks

Bearmeat's picture

I love the breakdown. I hate what it tells us about last week.

I don't think it's at all likely ARod will have another game like this anytime soon. I'd even bet a rematch in the playoffs between these two teams will be a much better game - with the good guys winning this time.

Bohj's picture

...And clearly the niners made it a point to make this a statement game for the season. I can see Harbaugh thinking that if we can do this to the Pack, his boyz will do this to anyone. I bet they spent more time on presnap deception this offseason for this game more than any other drill.

Denver's picture

I agree the INT was not one of #12's finer moments, but Jennings giving the "I'm open" wave didn't help matters either.
A cluster of a play no matter how you slice it.
Oh, and wouldn't it be awesome to have an ILB like Bowman or Willis?? Damn....

PackersRS's picture

To me Jennings was open, the ball should've been thrown sooner and higher.

The ball should be arriving when Jennings turns, and that's not the case. If so, Bowman wouldn't be in position to make the play.

Rodgers was just bad in this game.

ppabich's picture

I'm not sure how he can get the ball out much quicker, it was a deeper drop and Bowman just fooled him. Urlacher is really good at doing that as well. Most of Rodgers INTs come in this fasion.

petr's picture

To see how little the 49ers respected the run, was how often they replaced Patrick Willis with Perrish Cox to cover Jermichael Finley!

Tarynfor12's picture

Great job Zach and much appreciated..even if it reminds me of one who did this alot.LOL

wgbeethree's picture

The first one is the one that has been mostly overlooked but kills me the most. It's just an inexcusable as you put it "brain fart". Zero reason to throw the ball away there. Cost us 3 points and "momentum" going into half. Had to chase those points the rest of the game. The other two were bad reads but that happens to the best of them.

Matt's picture

The last play I remember like that for Rodgers was in the 2010 playoffs against the Bears, when he threw that pick to Urlacker, but then redeemed himself by barely tackling him in the open field. Both times he just completely lost track of the MLB, and both looked terrible. Happens to the best of us!

Great breakdown overall!

Mojo's picture

Like the from behind the Q-back view on the last example. The one positive on that play was it sure looks like the o-line gave him a nice pocket.

aarin's picture

Best analysis I've seen all week

packsmack25's picture

This is next level stuff, Zach. You're going to be a sought-after analyst sometime soon.

ken's picture

i have to disagree on the last throw. it wasn't a bad read. jenning's open. he's 5 yards behing bowman and the saftey is about 7 yards downfield at least. we've all seen this pass fit into tighter windows- ie superbowl XLV. also jennings is open in the photo above but rodgers throws it late and worse---it's just a flat throw, with no air under it, if rodgers put a little air under it it's a big play. maybe a lazy throw but not a bad read.

philip's picture

I'd say Rodgers did exactly what he should have done if he expected Bowman to continue in the direction he was going shortly after the snap. Bowman made a great play.

If Rodgers puts any air under that throw, then, as Zach put it, Jennings either gets blown up or the pass gets picked by the safety. Rodgers made a good read and the right throw, it was just great deception by the defense. Let's hope Rodgers learns from what defenses are likely to do all season: bait him into his favorite plays.

ppabich's picture

I would say it was a bad read, but a good throw based on the perceived defense.

Spiderpack's picture

Agreed. And that's what Rodgers was trying to say in his postgame PC.

Ct Sharpe Cheddar's picture

On the interception he had one on one coverage on the right.Jones is coming open in the flat.Bowman read his eyes easy pick.He usually pumps fakes that and hit Jones (Easy first)

Ct Sharpe Cheddar's picture

I don't think he was fooled ,but just another bone headed play that day.

Spiderpack's picture

Tell us the truth Zach, you are sitting in on the quarterback meetings aren't you? Excellent work.

Bohj's picture

I wish Capers did more deception like this with our linebackers. It truly effs with those timing routes that are all the rage in the NFL. That's what 3-4 linebackers are supposed to look like. Granted we have one true rookie and one partial rookie as half of our 4. More game experience will help. Remember in 2010 when the Freezer stepped in front of the slot for the pick 6 and the backers blitzed? Yeah.... that kind of deception. I'm so jealous of the niners front 7. Those of you whining about switching back to a 4-3..... are you sure? Did you watch the niners D?

Paul Ott Carruth's picture

No question the 49ers played a solid game on defense. However, the biggest opponent for the Packer offense was impatience. This has historically been the primary culprit in the Packer offense sputtering. Checkdowns are sometimes the best way to score. It would be nice to have 5 and 6 play drives all of the time but that isn't a reality anymore for the Packers. Teams know how to defense them and it has less to do with exotic blitz schemes and more to do with the fact that teams are banking on McCarthy and Rodgers to get impatient. That is what we saw on Sunday. It is important, moving forward, for McCarthy to incorporate more of the running backs in to the passing game and for Rodgers to take those short checkdowns and designed routes when the situation calls for extending drives and maintaining possession of the ball. The Packers can ill afford to consistently not convert short to medium distance third downs in the hopes of always hitting the big chunk.

FITZCORE 1252'S EVO's picture

From your finger tips to gods ears P.O.C.


philip's picture

I agree. In fact, I'd rather have longer drives (in terms of time of possession) than shorter. That may be part of the problem with this defense. Last season they didn't get much rest because of all the quick scoring drives.

FITZCORE 1252'S EVO's picture

I'm not going to moan about a quick score, but there is something to be said for a long sustained drive. It physically tires the opposing D and also mentally makes them question if they can stop the O. And it obviously gives our D a chance to catch their wind... 60 yard TD strikes sure are fun though!

WisconsInExile's picture

+500 Can't agree enough. It's Rodgers/McCarthy's tragic flaw. McCarthy/Clemens/McAdoo should have given Rodgers a failing grade on any pass longer than 10 yards during 2:00 or 4:00 drills during camp.

WisconsInExile's picture

If I recall correctly, Rodgers/McCarthy justify the big plays, strong preferences for medium and long routes, quick drives, preserve time on the clock, etc., on the theory that shorter drives + more clock = more drives per game = more scoring. Makes sense. Except when it doesn't. I love that R+McC are cerebral gamers. But you have to be able to switch it up when your tendencies are getting too obvious. Poker works the same way.

PackersRS's picture

Yes. Every frikin 3rd down was streaks.

They get cocky. They think that by pressing at the line one of the receivers will get wide open deep, but they completely neglect what's going on in front of them.

I hate when MM puts his Mike Martz disguise.

ppabich's picture

I don't know, it seemed to me that Rodgers hit a lot of check downs, often choosing Cobb out of the backfield over deep or intermediate throws. It seemed to me that the Packers came out in the first half trying to do what they normally do, and the 49ers were PERFECT in coverage. The second half had many more check downs and breaking intermediate and short routs leading to some success.

Tundrabum's picture

Pack rhymes with Zach, and both are back. These things don't just happen.

Chad Toporski's picture

So, I went back and watched the 3rd-and-1 play again...

Yes, Nelson was double-covered, but by the time the ball reaches him, he's a step ahead of the safety, and the cornerback isn't even a concern. If Rodgers places the ball better, that's a catchable pass with little that the safety could do but make a tackle.

It's a high-risk play, and based on the way the team had been playing, it was clearly frustrating to give up another drive. However, the Packers were only down by 9 points, on the first drive of the half, and with 28.5 minutes left in regulation. Best time to take a shot in the second half if you ask me.

FITZCORE 1252'S EVO's picture

I agree. Jordy had a step, if that ball is a little left of where it wound up it's a TD. I'll never bitch about aggressive play calling. That's what this team is, I didn't bitch about it when it produced a SB, won't start now.

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