I’ve been studying up on the Rams and their 10-6 season and, yes, they have a ferocious defense. It’s going to take sound planning to beat this opponent, but I trust that Matt LaFleur and his staff possess the smarts to do so.
The Rams’ defense led the league in fewest yards yielded, passing yardage yielded, and points yielded. They also ranked third in rushing yards yielded, so they have few glaring defensive weaknesses. The Packers counter with an offense that led the league in points scored, were fifth best in yards gained, and were well balanced in being 8th best in rushing yardage and ninth-best in passing yardage.
Individual-wise, a similar comparison presents itself. The Rams have the league’s best defensive player and the Packers have the best offensive player. When Rodgers lines up over center, he and Aaron Donald will be staring at each other from about three feet away.
Let’s get to work. My analysis begins with the premise that the offense – the team with the ball and calling the plays – has an advantage over the defense. When facing a great pass defense, an offense can simply rely more heavily on the run game. When facing a shutdown cornerback (both teams have one) you can minimize passing in his direction. When facing a great pass rusher, there are a number of ways to lessen that player’s influence on the game.
I just read where, according to Pro Football Focus, in 2020 Aaron Rodgers had the fifth best PFF player grade in a single game, regardless of players’ positions. It was the season opener against the Vikings, who the Pack beat by a 43 to 34 score. This game set the stage for the rest of the season – both for the team and for Aaron individually. He also had the very best PFF player grade of the 2020 season, 96.9, in the Week 13 win over the Eagles.
In that season opener, Aaron’s time-to-throw was a lightning-quick 2.38 seconds. My belief is that Aaron’s resurgence in 2020 can best be explained by his apparent commitment, entering his 16th season, to releasing the ball more quickly. Rodgers gave up no sacks to the Vikes, and his completion rate was a sterling 72.7%.
Though Aaron strayed a bit from his quick-release practice during the season (finishing at 2.72 seconds), I believe his big improvement in this area accounts for his very low number of sacks, 20, on the season. If Aaron releases his passes in the 2.5 seconds range versus the Rams, Aaron Donald and his mates won’t be getting any sacks – regardless of how well or poorly the Pack’s O-line blocks. The quick release is the optimum way of thwarting a strong pass rush. It also frustrates the hell out of those mammoth pass rushers.
Rams vs. Seahawks
The Rams faced the Seahawks three times this past season, including in a playoff game last Saturday, and they registered 16 sacks of Wilson – Donald’s team of course went on to win two out of the three games against their divisional rival.
In a nutshell, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks didn’t play smart against the Rams. With Russell dancing around, holding the ball for many seconds, and often trying to escape from the pocket – as are his trademarks – the Hawks played right into the Rams’ hands. If Rodgers tries to do the same, the result of the game will very likely be a Rams win.
There are several other useful ways to negate a strong pass rush. One of course is to go run heavy. The Packers have many good run blockers and three fine running backs, so I do expect their number of runs to be about equal to their pass attempts in this game.
One great way to counter the Rams would be to call a lot of well-designed screen pass plays. This is one of the few areas that Coach LaFleur has not utilized very effectively as yet in his time at Green Bay.
On the season, Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones had 47 receptions, and picked up 355 yards along the way. While this doesn’t sound so bad, many of these passes were dump-offs by Rodgers, done to avoid sacks rather than being designed screen plays. Also, several of Jones’ catches came when he lined up as a wide receiver.
Jamaal Williams had 31 catches, for 236 yards. Jones and Williams had identical averages of 7.6 yards gained per reception. The Packers third RB, A.J. Dillon had two pass receptions – though he too appears to be a capable receiver.
By comparison, the Saints’ Alvin Kamara caught 83 passes, and Washington’s J. D. McKissic caught 80 during the regular season. I’m not suggesting Jones should be a receiving target to that extent, but I do think Packers RBs should be the recipients of around five screen passes per game – and maybe more against top pass-rushing teams. We’ll find out this Saturday if LaFleur agrees.
Another way that Rodgers can thwart a pass rush, and minimize sacks, is to roll outside of the tackles as he looks to pass. This makes it take longer for interior defensive linemen to reach him. More importantly though, it allows a QB to throw the ball away when he’s under heavy pressure without being penalized for intentional grounding.
Another strategy I hope to see employed is to often line up A.J. Dillon in the backfield alongside Aaron Jones. In addition to providing more run options, Dillon is most likely the strongest blocker, against giant pass rushers, among the team’s running backs.
There are other tactics that can be employed, such as draw plays, frequent misdirection, and the shovel pass (which I’ve yet to see LaFleur use) – but you get the idea.
Getting back to the theme in the title, the offense has more control over a game than does the defense. And the quarterbacks, much more than any other players, are the determining factor in a game’s outcome.
Green Bay has MVP candidate Rodgers, who had the league’s top passer rating, 121.5, during the regular season. The Rams’ QB, Jared Goff had a rating of 90.0, in the bottom half of the league at 23rd place – and that was before he broke his thumb.
Goff’s performance was on a downhill slide as the season wore on. His passer ratings in his last four games were: 74.9 (Patriots), 89.0 (Jets), 61.6 Seahawks), and 93.1 (Seahawks, playoffs). Rodgers, meanwhile, is peaking, with his last four passer ratings being: 133.6, 91.6. 128.1, and 147.9. This isn’t a gap between the two teams’ quarterbacks it’s a canyon.
I suspect that the differences in these quarterbacks’ abilities is the reason why the Rams have opened as a 7-point underdog in this intriguing divisional round.