Knowing that the attention spans of many football fans is short, I’ve been trying to shorten my posts a bit, though I admit I haven’t had much success. Given the one-sided set of comments to my last post (here) encouraging Rodgers to run for yardage “when the situation presents itself,” (which I stated twice), some further elaboration and discussion is in order.
I’m not aware of anybody who compiles statistics on the causes of QB injuries, so I’ll have to rely on what my eyes tell me. I’d say the vast majority of QB injuries occur: (1) when the blocking pocket breaks down and a huge rusher blind-sides a QB who is looking downfield for a receiver; or (2) when a QB, knowing he’s in a defenseless pose and about to take a horrendous hit, nonetheless stands in there and throws the ball. Fans tend to salute these QBs for such courage, whereas they probably should be criticized for recklessly exposing themselves.
What I encourage is this: when a big gap of open space appears in the pass protection pocket, which happens often, a QB should take advantage of the opportunity by tucking the ball down and running – and when defenders get near him he should slide to the ground, or run out of bounds, in order to avoid heavy contact.
One of the many advantages to this strategy is that these runs often result in significant yardage gains – on the order of 15 to 20 yards. Additionally, it’s a great way to convert third downs.
What is less apparent is that when defensive rushers know a QB is prepared to take off running, they need to be more constrained and controlled in their movements, so as not to abandon their lanes for the QB to run through. For example, there are many NFL pass rushers who almost totally rely on going wide and looping around and tackling the passer from behind. In his last few years, this is about the only rushing method that Clay Matthews used.
This tactic often creates big running lanes for a QB to ramble through. This season, I don’t recall the Green Bay defenders giving QBs a lot of easy running opportunities. The Packers’ pass rushers have tended to resort to bull rushes, and to staying in their lanes, which shrink the pocket and keep these gaps from forming. When the Pack is preparing for its next opponent, it should study the other team’s pass-rushing habits, so they are ready to exploit teams that lack the discipline to keep the QB within a tight pocket. By QBs readily running through gaps in the pocket, an offense can force a defense to have a less effective pass-rush.
Your recollection might differ, but I can’t think of a single instance in which a QB has gone into a slide and gotten injured (other than when he’s caught a cleat in the ground). Even when a QB slides too late and a defender makes contact with him, I can’t recall their being any injuries. I’ve seen QBs jump up spitting mad, but uninjured – when a player is on the ground, and has had a moment to brace for an impact, injuries seldom result.
I’ve taken into account that this strategy is not suitable for all QBs. But it is custom-made for Aaron Rodgers. The crafty veteran is known for his smarts, his discipline, and for his ability to make sound split-second choices. It’s a ploy that should be used judiciously.
For those of you who are queasy about having Rodgers break out of the pocket and rushing for yardage on occasion, I have a final proviso. This is a tactic that can be kept in mind for special occasions: a critical third down, a play in the red zone, in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line, and so on.
We actually have an example from this season. Week 4, 2nd quarter, Packers down 7-0, but with a 2nd and goal at the Steelers’ 9-yard line. Aaron fades back, doesn’t spot anyone open, and the Steelers blitz a defensive back who tries to go wide, but Billy Turner easily pushes him well behind the QB. Rodgers doesn’t hesitate, takes off through the gap, leaves T.J. Watt in the dust, and waltzes untouched into the end zone. This easy and opportunistic play was a momentum-changer in the Pack’s 27-17 win.
Think for a moment of who are the league’s top QBs: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Dak Prescott. Come to mind. Let’s excuse 44-year old Brady. Of the remaining seven, all but Rodgers frequently enhance their games by becoming rushers when such opportunities present themselves. I’d venture to say that their willingness to become a runner makes them both harder to pass-defend against and harder to pass-rush – its responsible for a sizable part of their successes.
You’ve probably heard of a business owner who decides after many years that it’s wiser to work smart than to work hard? Rodgers and the Packers would be very smart to be prepared to take off running, especially in critical situations, when an ample running lane opens up in the pass-blocking pocket. It goes with being all-in to win.
Oh, and the best way to reduce quarterback injuries overall? As I’ve been saying for three years now, it’s reducing the quarterback’s time to throw. Here’s what I concluded back in February of 2019, and it bears repeating here:
“Yes fans, so much is related to releasing the pass quickly: sack rates, completion percentage, throwaways, third down success – winning! As a bonus, throw in: keeping the QB healthy.”
It’s not rocket science: get rid of the ball in under 2 ½ seconds, and the pass rush doesn’t have time to reach the quarterback. Rodgers made great strides in this area in 2020. If I recall correctly, he had a pretty decent year – and an injury-free one too!