If the 49ers don’t win on Saturday, the reason will be singular: Aaron Rodgers. Fortunately for the 49ers, Rodgers is having something of an off year–statistically, at least. His yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdowns, totals yards, and so on pale in comparison to the gaudy numbers he put in 2011. And so, this begs the question: Is Rodgers not playing well?
Well, according to the well-respected (or so I’ve heard) senior producer of NFL Films, Greg Cosell, the answer is an emphatic yes. “I don’t think Aaron Rodgers is playing particularly great football,” Cosell told KNBR. “I think he’s leaving an awful lot of plays on the field. I think he’s indecisive and tentative in the pocket. He’s not pulling the trigger on throws that are there.”
Despite the fact that Rodgers is leaving a lot of plays on the field, Pro Football Focus still rates him as the best quarterback in the league. Among quarterbacks who’ve played at least 50% of offensive snaps, Rodgers ranks in the top-five in yards per attempt, completion percentage, and touchdowns thrown. He’s also the most accurate passer in the NFL when drops and throw aways are accounted for.
In short, Aaron Rodgers is not playing great football, but he’s still the best quarterback in the league. Let that sink in.
So how do the 49ers stop Aaron Rodgers, you ask? Well, to find out, we interviewed Monty McMahon, writer and editor of the highly-irreverent, and often polarizing Green Bay Packers blog, TotalPackers.com. As usual, in the interest of keeping your friends close and enemy closer, be sure to follow McMahon on Twitter: @TotalPackers.
East Bay Sports Guy (EBSG): Is there a way to stop Aaron Rodgers? I mean, when you blitz him, he picks you apart, completing 63.3% of his passes for 1219 yards and 17 touchdowns. When you don’t blitz him, he still picks you apart, completing 68.7% of passes for 3349 yards and 23 touchdowns. You can sack him, a lot. But that doesn’t seem to slow him down. So how do you stop him? How did Jacksonville in Week 8 and Detroit in Week 14 do it?
Monty McMahon (MM): For a while, teams were copying the blueprint the 49ers used in week 1 to beat the Packers — play two safeties deep and take away the big play. The adjustments the Packers made in the latter part of the season kind of brought back the 2011 offense. The game plan was changed to play underneath the cover 2 and the emergence of a running game also helped. Much like Adrian Peterson, I don’t think there’s really a way to stop a guy like Aaron Rodgers. His accuracy is the stuff of legend. Opposing defenses just have to limit the big play and put points on the board with their offense. Rodgers isn’t mistake-prone and he doesn’t get rattled. Like they used to say about Jordan, you don’t stop him, you try to contain him.
EBSG: Randall Cobb has been quiet as of late, sitting out week 17’s game due to injury and gaining on one catch on two targets in the wild-card round. In the team’s first meeting, Cobb seemed like a focal point. He did after all have nine receptions on as many targets for 77 yards—61 of which came after the catch. What do you attribute his lack of involvement last week to and what role do you anticipate him having this week?
MM: I attribute it to two things. 1. Poor game planning, which Mike McCarthy is notorious for — he’s the guy who gets the keys to a Ferrari and immediately goes out and crashes it into a light pole. 2. Greg Jennings. He missed half the season because of abdominal surgery before returning in week 13. It took a little while, but Jennings has reemerged as the focal point of the passing game. In week 16 he had seven catches and in week 17 he had eight. Last week, he had a team-high 61 yards receiving. That being said, Cobb has to be a factor going forward if the Packers are going to make a playoff run. He’s their most dangerous offensive threat — can take it to the house anytime he touches the ball. The Packers have a lot of weapons, but I would expect Cobb to have no fewer than 10 targets this week. Some of those may come in the running game.
EBSG: DuJuan Harris is a good story and perhaps a better back. Is he a legitimate cure to the Packers’ run game woes? If so, what is the difference between him and other flash in the pan—for lack of a better term—running backs (James Starks, Ryan Grant, and Brandon Jackson) the Packers have used in the recent past? How much better does he make the offense?
MM: He looks like the guy going forward and he should be. He runs hard and runs through people, which the Packers haven’t had since Cedric Benson went down early in the year. One thing that’s telling is, Alex Green has been healthy the past two weeks and hasn’t touched the ball. Harris had been solid running the ball, but he was great as a receiver against the Vikings. He’s also reliable picking up blitzers. I’m not sure if he’s the long-term answer, but he looks like he’s at least this year’s James Starks. When the Packers went on their run in 2010, the then-unknown Starks carried the team at times during the playoffs. Harris is starting to look a lot like that guy.
Special thanks to Monty McMahon for participating. Stay tuned for McMahon’s take on the Packers defense and on the infamous simultaneous catch.