When you have a strong-jawed, ice-blue-eyed golden goose, you better do everything you can to protect him. The Green Bay Packers had a shaky start to the year in protecting Aaron Rodgers, but the trend has taken a positive turn during their current four game win streak.
The Packers’ offensive line has allowed 29 sacks on their MVP quarterback through nine games, the second-worst in the NFL (thank goodness for those Arizona Cardinals!). Upsetting as this is, Green Bay fans have reason to be optimistic. While the team surrendered 21 sacks on Rodgers through the first five games, they have only given up eight in the last four games, more than halving their per game average. It is no surprise that the sacks allowed have a direct correlation to the their victory percentage: the Packers gave up 16 sacks in their three losses.
Part of this falls on Rodgers. At times, Rodgers has held on to the ball too long, frantically trying to make something out of nothing. While typically awesome in his pocket-awareness, Rodgers has had some struggles with this, too, occasionally failing to read the pressure and stepping into sacks.
The main reason, however, is that teams are starting to defend the Packers differently. Many teams often blitz to pressure the quarterbacks and, all last year, teams tried to blitz Rodgers out of his rhythm. Unfortunately for them, Rodgers excels against the blitz and absolutely torches teams that rely too heavily on blitz packages. This year, opponents seemed to finally take notice of the effectiveness of their coverages. More teams are starting to realize how the Packers have stalled offensively against teams like the Chicago Bears, who primarily use a Cover 2 defense. The Packers, who make their hay on big-yardage, downfield, explosive plays, have been stymied when challenged to be patient and forced to draw out little-by-little drives. Opponents are no longer allowing Jordy Nelson to streak down the field in single coverage. Playing two high safeties has nudged the Packers out of their comfort zone, which has led to a bit of recalibrating of their offensive identity.
Though they have had difficulties, Green Bay has recovered well and has accepted the need for more flexibility in their play calling. They have improved at biding their time with shorter plays, waiting for the defense to offer them a chance at a downfield shot. When you have a quarterback like Rodgers, and receivers like Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley, and Greg Jennings, you have the talent to play pretty much any style you are willing to call.
The offensive line obviously deserves kudos for improving their play and their numbers. The question now is if they can maintain that improvement while right tackle Bryan Bulaga looks to be out for extended time with a hip injury. Left guard T.J. Lang has been shifted over to right tackle and backup Evan Dietrich-Smith has stepped in at left guard. With the offense beginning to click and look like themselves again, I think the Packers offensive line can survive Bulaga’s absence, barring any more injuries.
The offensive line, the running backs, the tight ends, coach Mike McCarthy, and Rodgers all have to make keeping Rodgers upright the number one goal. All Rodgers and the offense need are opportunities to make plays – opportunities that are not there when the quarterback is running for his life. As long as he’s not lying on the ground, Rodgers can pretty much do anything and everything as a quarterback.