There are few greater joys I get than watching Cal alum Aaron Rodgers in action as a starting NFL quarterback. I knew he had the capability to be a great quarterback at the next level when I watched him as a freshman in college. He had all the tools to be great, and he produced at both the college and NFL level.
In the 2011 NFL Playoffs, Rodgers brought that greatness to the surface in leading the Green Bay Packers to a championship. And in the season-opener against the New Orleans Saints, Rodgers made it all happen. Here are some of his best plays.
It's a shotgun empty set for Rodgers in an obvious passing down situation. Rodgers gets a low snap from his center that he has to reach with one hand toward his left to pick up. After recovering the ball, Rodgers takes the ball, looks down the field, sees that the linebackers are wedging up on tight end Jermichael Finley down the seam, so he looks back to his right as the pocket rushes back toward him and steps up into the pocket. He then unleashes a bullet to Donald Driver waiting right near the first down marker.
Everything is on display here; Rodgers's adaptability to errors by the offense, stepping up into the pocket, moving through his progressions, his impressive footwork (his front foot is pointed right toward his receiver), and his release (snap-fast, with no chance for the defense to recover there). There are many impressive throws, but in terms of the all-around package, hard to top this play right here.
It's a shotgun four wide receiver set. This play highlights Rodgers's excellent awareness of where players are located on the field, and his ability to make different types of throws to exploit the way the defender is covering the reciever. In this case, Rodgers goes back to picking on second year cornerback Patrick Robinson.
After Rodgers threw that original third down completion to Driver, he picked on Robinson when throwing a fade route to Jordy Nelson to the left side for a huge gain that set the Packers up in the red zone. So Robinson is now edgy for the typical fade throw, and turns his head back at the snap to monitor Jennings and play him tight toward the sideline.
But Rodgers knows Robinson is edgy for that throw too. So at the snap he's looking immediately to the left and toward Jennings. Both Jennings and Rodgers play it perfectly--when the defender plays bump-man coverage, come back for the back shoulder fade, one of Rodgers's specialty. Rodgers gets the ball off just as Jennings slows and turns back for the ball. Robinson is caught off-balance by the outside throw and stumbles, easy 7-0 touchdown for the Packers.
Rodgers would rely on the timing of the back-shoulder fade on several other throws to Jennings (late in the third quarter) and Finley (later in the first quarter). It's Rodgers's deadliest throw, and when he can connect on that, it makes him that much tougher to guard on other plays.
3rd and goal, New Orleans 3, 6:29 1st quarter
Aaron Rodgers pass to the right to Jordy Nelson for 3 yards for a TOUCHDOWN. (WATCH PLAY HERE AT 0:38)
Another shotgun four WR end zone set for the Packers. Rodgers recognized the zone coverage and the safety planting himself to cover the left third of the end zone. With two receivers on three defenders, he doesn't want to try and fit it to Jennings in the corner. He starts surveying down the middle and sees the two Saints linebackers down the middle, and knows he doesn't want to throw that dart down the center to his dumpoff option in running back James Starks because the linebacker can come back toward it.
So Rodgers looks back to the right, sees that Nelson has the outside position on his defender, and throws the ball toward the outside of Nelson for the score. Rodgers's patience and ability to go through his reads is his major asset here to help put the Packers up on top 14-0.
3rd and 7, Green Bay 23, 7:52 2nd quarter
Aaron Rodgers pass to the middle to Greg Jennings for 13 yards to the GB36.
The Saints have six men at the line of scrimmage, incluing an overload of two linebackers on the right who will (the other linebacker (the one down the middle) will drop back into coverage. Rodgers now knows his best option is to the left against the cornerback, because there's single coverage there and no linebacker support. Well, he's already worked the deep fade and the back shoulder fade, so why not throw it to the receiver on the inside this time?
Jennings gets Robinson to turn his body to the outside by feinting toward that fade route, then turning back toward the inside on a slant. Robinson still stays pretty close to him though, so Rodgers still has to make a perfect throw. And Rodgers fits that one perfectly, placing his feet again right toward Jennings and making the first down conversion happen on a throw to a spot where only his receiver can get it.
With Peyton Manning now out of action and no one to throw to Reggie Wayne, it'd be hard to dispute the Rodgers-Jennings duo to be the most unstoppable QB-WR pass combo in the NFL.
An incredibly adaptable throw, and equally good work by Jennings making the adjustment to go down and low for the catch.
1st and 10 at New Orleans 23, 14:31 fourth quarter
Aaron Rodgers pass to the left to Donald Driver for 9 yards to the NO14.
Rodgers moves around. And around. And around. And around. And gets a man open. And targets him. And nails him.
The pass protection is solid enough to let Rodgers get that movement in the pocket, survey the field, let the receivers move, and improvise. New Orleans is playing zone coverage to try and make Rodgers work the throw. Finally Driver (probably the fourth or fifth read Rodgers makes on the play) crosses down the field. Rodgers manages to step up, set his feet toward the left where Driver will be on the cross, and throws it as Driver
The ability to keep the play alive and move in the pocket is something that separates Rodgers from the majority of NFL quarterbacks. It's hard to think of anyone who matches their pocket presence with that type of explosive mobility in the league right now--the last one who comes to mind is Steve Young. And that's why he's so special.
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Not all of the credit for Green Bay's offensive explosion belongs to Rodgers. The Packers pass protection was much improved, Jennings's pass-catching continues to impress, and the return of a mismatch nightmare like Finley certainly gives Rodgers an arsenal that no other team in the league can even begin to compare to on offense.
But it's Rodgers who will control whether the Packers repeat, and in his first game into 2011, it looks like he's ready to roll on like a Golden Bear.