NFL Nation: Aaron Rodgers

Packers vs. Saints preview

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
8:00
AM ET
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Recent history suggests we could be in for a lot of points in prime time when the New Orleans Saints (2-4) host the Green Bay Packers (5-2) on Sunday night inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The past three meetings between Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Packers counterpart Aaron Rodgers have averaged more than 70 points per game, with more than 2,000 total passing yards and a combined 19 touchdown passes.

For that trend to continue, the Saints need to recapture their missing mojo. While the Packers have been among the hottest teams in football during a four-game win streak, the Saints have been maddeningly up-and-down all season, even in their victories. New Orleans is 2-0 at home this year, though, and it has won 13 straight prime-time home games by nearly 20 points per game.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: Rob, the Packers have always reminded me a lot of the Saints in that they look untouchable when their offense gets hot. Is their offense playing as well right now as it ever has in the Rodgers era?

Demovsky: It's close, Mike. But several players this week said they're still not quite to where they were in 2011 when, as offensive lineman T.J. Lang put it, they "could do whatever they wanted." But there's no question Rodgers is dialed in. His only interception, which came in the opener, went off the hands of Jordy Nelson. And here's why the offense might be close to resembling Rodgers' MVP season of '11: He's starting to spread the ball around more. The offense isn't just Nelson, like it was the first three weeks. In Sunday's win over the Panthers, Rodgers hit nine different receivers. That's the way he operated in 2011.

What's the difference with the Saints' offense right now than when it clicks like it has so often in the past?

Triplett: I'll give you the same answer. It's close. Brees and the Saints have still looked excellent at times, and they lead the NFL in yards per play. But they've shot themselves in the foot too much with a total of 12 turnovers and seemingly one bad stretch in every game. Sunday, Brees threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns through three quarters at Detroit. Then they collapsed in the fourth quarter, including a really bad interception.

But all of the elements are still there. Brees has been mostly sharp and accurate with short passes, and he finally rediscovered the deep passing game Sunday. His biggest problem: He has thrown seven interceptions while under duress. The run game has been as good as ever during the Brees-Sean Payton era. They need Jimmy Graham healthy, but he's on the way. They need consistency more than anything else, and playing at home should help kick-start things.

What kind of a defense will the Saints be facing on Sunday night? Green Bay has reminded me of the Saints on that side of the ball with so much inconsistency over the years.

Demovsky: Up until Sunday against the Panthers, it was a defense that was reliant on taking the ball away. The Packers had 11 takeaways (including eight interceptions) in their four previous games but they finally played a solid defensive game where turnovers weren't the overriding difference. Yes, they did have one interception against Carolina, but it wasn't the reason they shut down Cam Newton & Co. The Packers forced three-and-outs on four of the Panthers' first five possessions. If there's an area where they're still a little shaky, it's against the run. They finally climbed out of last place in rushing defense, but not by much. They're 31st this week.

What's been the bigger issue for the Saints on defense: their secondary or their lack of a pass rush, which was supposed to be a strength?

Triplett: The two go hand in hand. The defensive line is a disappointment because, as you said, it was supposed to be a strength and the Saints are loaded with talent with outside linebacker Junior Galette and ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks. Instead, they've just been OK. But they remain the greatest reason for optimism, and they just played their best game last week at Detroit.

The secondary is a much bigger concern. Top cornerback Keenan Lewis remains excellent, but they've struggled badly at the No. 2 and No. 3 cornerback spots with a variety of players. They lost safety Jairus Byrd to a season-ending injury, and fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro has battled inconsistency and some uncharacteristic missed tackles. This matchup against Green Bay's offense is daunting, to say the least.

You mentioned that the Packers aren't relying solely on Nelson, which is interesting. The Saints have actually done an OK job keeping the most dangerous weapons in check (Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, etc.). But they've been in big trouble against deeper offenses like Atlanta's and Dallas' because they spread the Saints thin and burned them underneath. I know Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy could cause problems. Do they go even deeper than that?

Demovsky: The emergence of rookie receiver Davante Adams has gone a long way toward diversifying their offense. Even if teams want to sit back in Cover 2 and roll one safety toward Nelson and the other toward Cobb, they now have Adams, who has good size and speed. Rodgers has looked to him more often of late, and he has a touchdown catch in two of the past three games. If they can get their tight ends involved, then they might be virtually impossible to stop, but so far they haven't gotten much from that spot.

The Packers' two losses have come in loud environments -- at Seattle and at Detroit -- and the Superdome certainly fits into that category. Despite all of their struggles this season, why should the Packers be worried about playing the Saints down there?

Triplett: That could be the great equalizer for the Saints. They're much more dangerous at home -- and for some reason almost unstoppable in home night games. Obviously the atmosphere has a lot to do with it. It's truly one of the loudest venues in the league. And that helps both the offense and the defense quite a bit because of communication. Plus they've got the fast track to work with and no weather conditions, which suits their style (though it won't hurt Green Bay's offense). And players also said they get into the idea of playing in that prime-time showcase knowing everyone is watching. As Brees said, "You feel like you want to kind of back up the reason for them putting you on [that stage]."

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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Jordy Nelson doesn't want you to know everything about the ins and outs of the back-shoulder play, except he's quick to point out one thing.

"First and foremost, it's not a play," the Green Bay Packers receiver said. "For us, it's a complete reaction."

There is no signal or pre-snap adjustment.

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson; Aaron Rodgers
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJordy Nelson and Aaron Rodgers have the on-field chemistry necessary to execute the back-shoulder fade, one of the NFL's toughest passes to defend.
Not even Nelson, one of the NFL's best at executing the play -- check that, the pass -- knows it's coming until the ball sails off the hand of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

"It's all on the quarterback and what they decide to do and where they want to place the ball," Nelson said. "For us, it's just, run our routes. The main thing would be to make sure you get your head around and are able to adjust to the ball."

If the receiver doesn't even know it's coming, what's a helpless cornerback or safety in coverage supposed to do about it?

"If you have a quarterback that can throw it, the quarterback typically throws it at the defender's head," Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "So you never see the ball."

It goes against everything coaches like Whitt teach their defensive backs, whose first priority is always to take away the deep throw. The back-shoulder fade -- which is essentially a purposefully underthrown pass -- is the perfect counteraction to a defender intent on taking away the go, or fly, route.

"As a secondary player, you're always taught to be on top of a route, control the deep routes," Packers safety Micah Hyde said. "When you get on top, to have to react to a ball that's underthrown, that's the hardest thing for the DB."

But not just any receiver can pull it off. The bigger and longer the receiver, the easier it is to execute. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, Nelson might have the perfect build to do so. It's why you won't see Rodgers throw it very often -- if ever -- to his No. 2 receiver, Randall Cobb, who at 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds is better-suited to play in the slot.

Then there is the experience factor. Someday, rookie receiver Davante Adams (6-1, 215) might see that throw from Rodgers. But until Rodgers knows Adams can react to the ball in the air the way Nelson can, it's not likely to happen.

"It comes with experience," Hyde said. "You've got to have chemistry with the quarterback, because it's a hard throw. To throw the ball before the receiver even stops, it's hard. I played quarterback back in the day [in high school]. It was hard then, and I'm sure it's 10 times harder now with these fast receivers. You've got to have a lot of chemistry, and I think some guys in the NFL, a lot of guys in the NFL, don’t have that experience that A-Rod and Jordy have."

As if it wasn't difficult enough to defend, oftentimes it comes with a subtle shove from the receiver.

"And boom, it's never being called," Whitt said. "It's a good play."

Except that it's not a play.
METAIRIE, La. -- When you lose a game the way the New Orleans Saints did last week, coughing up a 13-point lead in the final four minutes at Detroit, quarterback Drew Brees said "it was painful for all of us."

"It bugs you for like 24 hours. I mean, it really bugs you," said Brees, who bluntly admitted after the game that he let his team down with a late interception.

Ultimately, though, Brees insisted that the way the Saints played for the first 56 minutes of that 24-23 loss at Detroit still breeds confidence that things are heading in the right direction.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Paul SancyaDrew Brees said Sunday's loss to the Lions "was painful for all of us."
And now that the page has officially turned toward a Sunday night showdown against the Green Bay Packers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Brees said the overriding emotion is excitement for that next opportunity to build on that progress.

"As you got into Tuesday and into today, you said, ‘Man, guys, we're getting close,'" Brees said. "I don't think we've scratched the surface with what we can do this year yet offensively. I think we've showed signs, and yet I think just on a consistent basis we haven't quite found it yet. But we're on our way, and that's the exciting thing. You keep chipping away at it, knowing that your best is still yet to come.

"And we're gonna need it this week against Green Bay."

Players like Brees and offensive tackle Zach Strief admitted that they have to be prepared to engage in a shootout with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who might have the hottest offense in football right now.

The Packers (5-2) have averaged 36.25 points per game over their current four-game win streak. Rodgers has thrown for 18 touchdown passes with just one interception this year -- with that only interception coming in Week 1.

"Anytime you go up against a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers on the other side of the ball, you know how sharp he's gonna be and you know you have to be at your best," Brees said. "You don't have to be perfect. But, man, just everything is magnified in a game like this. ...

"It just makes you feel like you have to be even that [much] more precise and execute that much better, take advantage of every opportunity that you get."

The Saints have to be especially precise against a Green Bay defense that has forced 14 turnovers this year. The Packers lead the NFL with a turnover ratio of plus-10, having turned it over only four times.

"More than anything, I think we need to protect the ball against this team," Strief said. "So we don't just have to put up points, we need to do it efficiently. Because they've been really good at taking it away, and that offense has really fed on that."

Turnovers have been a problem for the Saints this year. Brees has thrown seven interceptions, and the Saints have lost five fumbles. And some of Brees' recent interceptions have been very poor decisions while trying to force a throw under pressure -- including the most costly one of the year to date at Detroit.

Brees' TD-to-interception ratio is 11-to-7 this year, which is far below his normal standard. But he said those numbers in and of themselves don't worry him or concern him or "keep me up at night" because he's more concerned with the improvement going forward.

Coach Sean Payton said earlier this week that Brees is "the least of our worries." And Strief offered a similar vote of confidence Wednesday.

"I think that Drew is doing what Drew's always done. And he's not getting a lot of help," Strief said. "I think you look at the two-minute drill at the end of the game [at Detroit], we ran six plays, he was pressured on all six of them.

"So obviously Drew is always gonna probably get more credit and he's gonna get more criticism than he's due. We understand that. And if there's one guy in this locker room we're gonna support 100 percent, it's gonna be Drew."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There will come a time in Sunday's game in New Orleans when one of the two quarterbacks won't be able to keep up.

And it may be only because there's no more time left.

When Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees get together -- and it's not often -- the scoreboard operator usually gets a workout.

Nearly two thousand passing yards and 211 points combined in the only three head-to-head meetings between those two giants of the quarterbacking world is evidence enough that the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints appear headed for another shootout in the Superdome this Sunday night.

"You're not playing against him," Rodgers insisted on Wednesday. "This is the Saints against the Packers."

But that doesn't mean the Packers quarterback won't have to react to what Brees and the Saints' offense throws at him. Or vice versa.

In those three meetings, Brees has thrown for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. However, Rodgers has the edge in Total QBR (see accompanying chart).

The three meetings were:
  • 2008 -- Saints 51, Packers 29: On "Monday Night Football" in New Orleans, the Saints tied a team record for points (which they have since surpassed) and scored seven touchdowns. Brees threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns.
  • 2011 – Packers 42, Saints 34: In the Thursday night season opener at Lambeau Field, Rodgers threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns, while Brees put up 419 yards and three touchdowns but was stopped on the 1-yard line on the final play of the game.
  • 2012 – Packers 28, Saints 27: In Green Bay, Brees threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns, while Rodgers threw for 319 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. The Saints missed a field goal with less than three minutes remaining.

Those three games may play no role whatsoever on Sunday. But the way Rodgers has started this season, it's hard to envision a defensive struggle is in the offing. He has thrown 18 touchdowns and just one interception this season. In the Packer' four-game winning streak, they have averaged 36.3 points per game. That's better than their scoring average (35.0 ppg) in 2011, when they set the franchise record for points (560).

"The year that he's having has been, you just kind of shake your head," Brees said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field. "He’s so impressive. Anytime there's a guy like that on the other side of the ball, you know you have to be at your best and it seems like all the little things in a game like this, all the little details are magnified.

"It's not one of these, 'Hey, we've got to be perfect.' Nobody is perfect. But you have to be pretty darn close. You have to be as good as you can be to have a shot at these guys when he's pulling the trigger on the other side."

In spite of the Saints' struggles in their 2-4 start, their offense has been as explosive as usual at home. In their two games at the Superdome (both victories), they have combined for 907 yards and 57 points.

"It's easy to say, "Well, you start with both teams [which] have had good offenses,' yet just as we say that, you can find yourself in one of those 17-13 games," Saints coach Sean Payton said.

That hardly seems possible, but both Payton and Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday that they have no preconceived notions about the way the game will play out. McCarthy said Wednesday that the plan in every game is to "shoot all your bullets. Hopefully, you're hitting them and they're not hitting you."

"If it ends up being a shootout, we've got to be prepared to do that," Packers right guard T.J. Lang said. "And I think we are every week [with] the amount of production that we've been having. I hate predicting games like that, saying it's going to be a shootout or a defensive battle. We've got to be prepared to do whatever it takes on game day."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Since 2010, no player has captured one of the NFL's player-of-the-week awards more often than Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers
Rodgers
On Wednesday, he was named the NFC's offensive player of the week for the 10th time since 2010. It was the second time he has taken home the honor this season.

Why did Rodgers win the award this time?

Take your pick:
  • In Sunday's victory over the Carolina Panthers, Rodgers had as many touchdowns (three) as incomplete passes on the way to a 255-yard performance that equated to a 154.5 passer rating, the second-highest of his career and the third-best rating in Packers' history for a quarterback with at least 20 attempts.
  • It was Rodgers' fourth game in a row with at least three touchdown passes without an interception. Tom Brady, who did it in 2007, is the only other player in NFL history to pull off that feat.
  • It was also Rodgers' sixth straight game without an interception. That tied Bart Starr's team record set in 1964. Rodgers has not thrown an interception since Week 1, a stretch of 192 attempts -- his career-high and the second-best streak in team history behind only Starr, who had 294 attempts between interceptions in 1964-65.

Packers hang with Pearl Jam

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
4:32
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – You might have seen T.J. Lang's picture from backstage at Monday night's Pearl Jam show in Milwaukee.

The Green Bay Packers right guard posted a shot of himself and teammates Matt Flynn, Corey Linsley and Josh Sitton with the band's frontman, Eddie Vedder, on Twitter.

Not pictured was quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But he was there and met one of his rock heroes before the show.

"Well we did hang out and talk for a little while backstage before the concert," Rodgers said Tuesday on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show. "And he did say that he was [a Packers'] owner. A buddy had gotten him a stock certificate a few years back."

Vedder, a Chicago-area native who remains partial to his hometown teams, donned a Packers' jersey during the show with the No. 10, which is Flynn's number. But the jersey was not Flynn's. Rather, the Packers had one made up with that number to commemorate the 1991 Pearl Jam album "Ten."

"People thought Flynn had given him the jersey, and Flynn obviously played along or maybe in his mind believed it was a Flynn jersey that he was wearing," Rodgers said. "I'm pretty sure it said "Vedder" on the back."

Vedder gave Rodgers a shoutout during the show, however, Rodgers said the story the singer told the crowd about asking Rodgers if he’d be interested in a trade to the Bears for quarterback Jay Cutler was a tall tale.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- With time to reflect, Aaron Rodgers may see this stretch of football -- one that has all sorts of historical milestones that we'll get too soon enough – as one of the finest of his career.

But late Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers quarterback, who last week insisted the offense he directs still was not humming along as he would like, remained unwilling to concede that much has changed.

Who knows what it will take to get Rodgers to acquiesce, but apparently this kind of start to a game -- touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, punt, touchdown, punt, touchdown -- in Sunday's 38-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers apparently did not satisfy his criteria.

At least he was willing to give an inch or two this week.

"I think we're getting closer," Rodgers said.

Rodgers wants more yards (the Packers managed 363 on Sunday) and more opportunity (they ran just 56 offensive plays). But here's why it might be time for Rodgers to admit this offense is rolling: For the first time this season, it resembled days like in 2011, when Rodgers was in the midst of his MVP season and had a smorgasbord of options in the passing game.

In Sunday's dismantling of the Panthers, Rodgers' 19 completions were spread amongst nine different players, a season high. That's in contrast to three times this season, including last week's game at Miami, when Rodgers completed passes to just five different players.

In 2011, Rodgers had seven games in which he completed passes to at least nine different players. Last season, it happened once, and it came against the Philadelphia Eagles when Rodgers was a spectator because of his collarbone injury.

"Back in '11, I feel like we spread it around a little more," said Rodgers, who was 19-of-22 for 255 yards with three touchdowns on Sunday. "We've had a lot of targets for Jordy [Nelson] and Randall [Cobb] this year, so we've tried the last four games to find ways to move those guys around and get them positive matchups."

This wasn't just the Jordy Nelson show, although the NFL's receiving yardage leader entering the week still managed four catches for 80 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown (his fourth straight game with a score).

Five different Packers scored touchdowns, including rushing touchdowns by Eddie Lacy and James Starks (who combined for 99 yards on 19 carries). When Rodgers also can include Cobb (six catches for 121 yards and his eighth touchdown of the season) and Davante Adams (who had a 21-yard touchdown catch) plus completions to two different tight ends, it qualifies as offensive diversity.

"Everybody got involved," said Cobb, who has matched his career high for touchdown passes in just seven games. "We were able to move the ball really well. Just drive after drive, able to capitalize and put points on the board. At the end of the day, that's the kind of offense we want to be, continue to be. We ran the ball well, we passed the ball well. Everything was open for us."

Had Rodgers not sailed a ball over tight end Richard Rodgers' head in the end zone on his final throw of the game late in the third quarter, he would have finished with four touchdown passes and a passer rating of 157.6 (on a scale in which 158.3 is the max). Still, he finished with just two other incompletions, and a harsh grader might consider both of them drops. When he gave way to Matt Flynn in the fourth quarter, Rodgers' final rating of 154.5 was the second-best mark of his career.

For the fourth straight game (all wins for the 5-2 Packers) he threw at least three touchdowns without an interception. Only Tom Brady (in 2007) has done that in a season.

He ran his streak of consecutive passes without an interception to 192, his career high and the second-best total in team history behind Bart Starr (294, 1964-65).

All of it is starting to feel like 2011, when Rodgers was on the best roll of his career.

"I'll say this about Aaron: Aaron is a much better today than he was in 2011," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "His responsibility level has increased a lot since then. So, what he does during the course of the week, during the course of the game, at the line of scrimmage, the communication between Alex Van Pelt and myself, he is, in my opinion, watching him grow throughout his career, he's clearly a better player."
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CHICAGO -- So this is what Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill looks like at his absolute best.

Miami's 27-14 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday finally showed what a consistent, dominant Tannehill looks like under center. Better yet for the Dolphins, it happened over four full quarters -- not the usual one good half or quarter Tannehill has provided this season.

How locked in was the third-year quarterback? On his second touchdown pass of the day, the Bears took away his first and second options. So Tannehill went to his third progression -- which he rarely does successfully -- to complete a 10-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace.

Wallace said after the game that the Dolphins (3-3) couldn't even hit that play in practice. But with Tannehill in the zone, they made it look easy when it mattered most, giving Miami a lead it never relinquished.

"I was the last read on the play," Wallace said. "On that play in practice, I've been working that [route] probably since I was in Pittsburgh and never got the ball, not one time, on that play. That was the first time.

[+] EnlargeRyan Tannehill
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastQB Ryan Tannehill capitalized on short passes to lift the Dolphins over Chicago in Week 7.
"You could fall asleep on that play, but you gotta stay focused. Honestly, I got that same play on Tuesday or Wednesday in practice and he threw it. We didn't connect on it, and I told him I will be better on it the next time. Tonight was our next time, and we were better."

There have been games when Tannehill was good, but never the best player on the field. That changed in Chicago. Afterward, backup quarterback Matt Moore got a chuckle out of Tannehill by telling him, "You inspire me."

Tannehill's day started with 14 straight completions, and he finished with 277 yards and two touchdown passes. He posted a career-high 123.6 passer rating and didn't have his first incompletion until 54 seconds left in the first half.

First-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is getting a better grasp of his quarterback's capabilities. The Dolphins used a well-devised game plan that highlighted Tannehill's strengths: throwing short and intermediate passes. His longest completion was for 26 yards to backup tight end Dion Sims. Tannehill also used his athleticism by rolling out of the pocket on passing plays, rushing for 48 yards on six carries.

Dolphins tight end Charles Clay said Tannehill's confidence was at an all-time high, especially after getting hot early.

"It's hard to pinpoint, but it was just something about him," said Clay, who had four receptions and caught Tannehill's first touchdown pass. "It gave me confidence, and I'm sure it gave everybody else in the huddle confidence."

Tannehill said he has never completed 14 straight passes to start a game at any level. He did complete 14 straight between the second and third quarters this season against the Oakland Raiders, but this performance was from the start and more dominant.

On this day, if you were open, Tannehill easily identified it and made the right decisions. He completed 78.1 percent of his passes, and eight Dolphins players had at least two receptions.

"Everyone was getting open," Tannehill said. "It's fun to be able to spread the ball around like that."

Was this a one-game performance or a potential career turning point? That remains to be seen.

One of the biggest critiques of Tannehill is he rarely strings together strong games in back-to-back weeks. This season alone he has struggled from half to half. That is one of the major reasons Tannehill is just 18-20 as a starter and still trying to prove he is Miami's long-term solution.

But Sunday's lights-out performance at least provided a one-game snapshot that Tannehill is capable of dominating a game. He has good athleticism and can make most of the throws needed to thrive in the NFL, with the exception of a consistent deep ball.

After six games, it's clear the Dolphins will go only as far as Tannehill takes them this season.

"We're definitely playoff-caliber, and if he's playing like [Sunday], we could be Super Bowl-caliber, honestly," Wallace said. "But we got to put in the work every day. We know it's not going to just come to us. We have to keep grinding and stay focused."

What's holding back Eddie Lacy?

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
2:45
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Eddie Lacy says he's the same player who rushed for 1,178 yards last season and was the NFL's offensive rookie of the year.

But the Green Bay Packers' offense, well that's different.

Lacy played half of last season without quarterback Aaron Rodgers. While teams loaded up to stop the run during that time, Packers coach Mike McCarthy still put the ball in Lacy's hands far more often than he has through six games this season, when Lacy has averaged 13.3 carries per game, more than five and a half fewer than last season.

Is that enough to explain why Lacy has averaged barely more than 50 yards rushing this season -- or nearly 30 fewer yards per game than last year (see chart)?

"Particularly when you have big running backs, I've always felt you gain 1 or 2 yards in the first quarter, 2 or 3 in the second quarter, 3 and 4 yards in the third quarter and then the fourth quarter, man, Katy bar the door," McCarthy said.

Yet McCarthy has defied his own reasoning by relying less on the running game and also splitting time between Lacy and James Starks. In Sunday's comeback win over the Miami Dolphins, it was Starks -- not Lacy -- who got the call for most of the final two drives. Starks' season average of 4.3 yards per attempt is a half-yard better than Lacy's and Sunday against the Dolphins, Starks' averaged a full yard more (3.9 to 2.9).

So McCarthy finds himself in a bit of a quandary. He would like to use both of his backs in an effort to keep them fresh over the long haul, yet he knows both thrive when their attempts are higher.

"They really haven't been given that opportunity, but it's a long season,” McCarthy said. "This is why we have this approach. We're fortunate enough to have two guys, so as far as the way the rotation's gone, I feel good about it."

The results, however, show that the Packers' running game is nowhere close to what it was last season, when it ranked seventh in the league. Through six games, they ranked 24th in rushing yards (94.8 per game) and 21st in rushing average (3.9 yards per carry).

Lacy, whose only 100-yard game came in Week 5 against the Minnesota Vikings on a night when he carried the ball only 13 times, insisted it's possible to replicate last year's success even without 20-plus carries, which he received 11 times last season (including playoffs).

"That's your job," Lacy said, "so you have to."

Before he ever saw Lacy play a snap, McCarthy went into last season looking for a 1-2 running back punch. But when injuries hit DuJuan Harris and Jonathan Franklin, Lacy became the workhorse, while Starks played a complementary role.

Now, the Packers are back to a running-back-by-committee format. The last two games, Lacy and Starks have played almost the exact same number of snaps -- 66 for Lacy and 65 for Starks. In those two games, Lacy has 27 carries to Starks' 20, but Starks has one more catch, four, than Lacy.

"When I came here, my job was to get them ready for all three downs," first-year running backs coach Sam Gash said. "That was kind of the way I was told to do it. It wasn't, Eddie's going to have 300 carries, James is going to have 200. That was never said to me. The only thing that was said to me was, 'We want to win.'"

Lacy has said repeatedly dating to the offseason that he expected this year to be different for two reasons: Opposing defenses know what to expect from him, and a healthy Rodgers means few rushing attempts.

"We're definitely not going to get under center and run the ball every play this year," Lacy said. "It doesn't make sense to do that. You have the best quarterback, why get under center and run the ball every play?"

So the offense is different, but is Lacy?

"I'm the same," he said.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Davante Adams and Randall Cobb suggested after Sunday’s comeback victory over the Miami Dolphins that they knew Aaron Rodgers was going to try the fake-spike play in the final seconds.

Rodgers
Rodgers
The way the Green Bay Packers quarterback recalled the play Tuesday during his ESPN Milwaukee radio show suggested it would have been impossible for his receivers -- even Adams, who caught the ball and scampered 12 yards down the sideline before wisely running out of bounds at the Dolphins’ 4-yard line to stop the clock with 6 seconds left to set up the game-winning touchdown on the next play -- to know it was coming.

Rodgers said simply that he yelled "clock," which means spike, and then did not spike it.

"Anything that anybody else has said about it, my apologies to those people, but it is probably slightly exaggerated," Rodgers said on his show. "That's really what happened."

He expected it to work but did not expect Adams to get 12 yards on the second-and-6 play from the Dolphins’ 16-yard line. More like 5 or 6 yards, he said.

"Two plays from the 10 is better than two plays from the 16," Rodgers said. "All that went into my mindset. It's stuff I think about from time to time when we're running two-minute drills in practice or afterwards when I'm thinking about it.

"I've done the fake spike in practice before with some success, but I did watch the Dan Marino years ago. I was a huge football fan growing up, and I thought [Marino's fake spike in 1994] was brilliant. Saw Dan on the sideline [on Sunday], didn't get to make eye contact with him but saw him across the field at one point during the game, and it was fun to be able to do that in the House that Marino built."

But what about that signal that Adams claims he saw?

"I don't know what he's talking about," Rodgers said. “And that’s the truth."

As for those who thought the play was a big risk, Rodgers said he found "comedy" in the fact that he's criticized for holding the ball too long and not taking enough risks.

"But then I fake a spike and throw it to Davante and get criticized for taking risks," Rodgers said.

Remember when Rodgers said earlier this summer that he's not going to let things bother him the way he used to?

This sounded like one of those times.

"I'm going to play to play the way I played, and it's been pretty successful around here," Rodgers said. "And I'm going to hold on to the ball when I feel like I can, and get out when I feel like I can as well. But I don't worry too much about the critic because it's talking out of both sides of their mouth, which is why that stuff doesn't bother me."
videoMIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The Green Bay Packers' offensive line had no idea the fake spike was coming.

Right guard T.J. Lang heard Aaron Rodgers yelling "clock, clock," indicating he planned to spike the ball. Center Corey Linsley heard Rodgers make a protection call, which told him to be ready in case a play was on.

As Rodgers came to the line of scrimmage with the Sun Life Stadium clock running down in Sunday's 27-24 victory over the Miami Dolphins – 15 seconds, 14 seconds, 13 seconds – he raised his right hand and made a fist just before he ducked in under center.

Perhaps that was the signal to receiver Davante Adams.

"Don't be giving away our secrets now," Packers wideout Randall Cobb warned Adams as he was asked about the play.

Whatever the signal was, Adams knew what was coming next. Rodgers took the snap with 12 seconds left, hunched over like he was going to slam the ball into the turf to stop the clock and then dropped back five steps and fired the ball to Adams in the right flat.

Jordy Nelson, who was lined up as the slot receiver on the same side of the field, never even came out of his stance.

"I didn't [know]," Nelson said.

The key was this: Rodgers saw Dolphins cornerback Cortland Finnegan playing well off Adams – at least 10 yards back – as he came to the line of scrimmage.

"It's one of those things that you don't really tell anybody what's going on," Rodgers said. "You're just yelling 'clock' and signaling 'clock' and then right before I snapped it, I looked out to the right and they were way off outside, so I just kind of faked it and moved."

Dolphins fans had seen this before. Their own Dan Marino executed the fake-spike play to beat the New York Jets on Nov. 27, 1994.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesAs the clock ticked on the final drive, Aaron Rodgers kept his fake spike play a secret from just about everybody.
Rodgers' masterful decision would have been negated if the rookie Adams didn't have the savvy beyond his years to get out of bounds once he realized he would not reach the end zone. Without a timeout left, anything short of the end zone or the sideline would have ended the game and fueled the cockamamie criticism of Rodgers for his lack of comeback victories.

Adams, who had six catches for 77 yards, caught the ball at the Dolphins' 14-yard line and trucked down the right sideline, where Finnegan and cornerback Jamar Taylor shoved him out of bounds at the 4-yard line with six seconds remaining.

At that point, Rodgers -- whose record improved to 5-13 in games decided by three points or fewer and 7-25 in games in which he has trailed by eight points or fewer in the fourth quarter, according to Football Outsiders -- needed to finish it off.

He might have had enough time to get two chances at the game winner, but when he saw linebacker Philip Wheeler on Andrew Quarless -- a mismatch in his mind -- he changed the call at the line of scrimmage and fired to his tight end in the right corner of the end zone with 3 seconds left, and a drive that started at the Packers' 40-yard line with 2:05 left was completed.

So was the comeback.

"I just told A-Rod just now, 'That was epic for me,'" Quarless said. "He said that was fun for him, too."

As Quarless reached for the sky with the ball in his right hand to celebrate his touchdown, Rodgers ended up on his back. He stayed there for a second or two, pointing in the air as Lang came over to him. The celebration continued on the sideline, where Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy embraced.

There were other factors critical to the final drive – Lang's third-down fumble recovery that set up a fourth-down conversion to Nelson among them – but the fake spike will be the one to remember. It led to Rodgers' second go-ahead touchdown pass in the final minute of a regular-season game; the first came in Week 17 last year to Cobb to beat the Chicago Bears.

"That's how you want it," said Rodgers, who threw three touchdown passes. "You want the opportunity to make a play at the end."
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MINNEAPOLIS – Quarterbacks are taught to always keep their eyes downfield. Feel the pressure, but elude it and make the play.

Then these same quarterbacks run into the Detroit Lions defense, and something changes.

[+] EnlargeNick Fairley
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltNick Fairley and his cohorts on the Lions' defensive line made life tough for rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
“Recently, we have seen quarterbacks not even looking downfield,” linebacker DeAndre Levy said. “They are kind of taking their eyes off the receivers and looking at the rush. Whenever you can get in a quarterback’s head like that, it helps everybody.”

That type of pressure ended with eight sacks Sunday in a 17-3 victory over Minnesota – the most by a Lions team since Nov. 23, 1997 against Indianapolis. It led to 12 quarterback hits and a Minnesota offensive line that couldn’t protect its rookie quarterback and led Vikings coach Mike Zimmer to lament, “We physically got beat.”

It’s a pressure that allows Detroit’s linebackers and secondary to break on routes and to defend passes, such as the six they defended and three they intercepted Sunday, including two by Tahir Whitehead.

It’s a pressure that helps the Lions deal with a day when two offensive stars – Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush – were out and they missed two more field goals. No matter -- the Lions are 4-2 because of a defensive line that, when it plays well, can dominate.

“No one can stop us if we do our technique and assignments correct,” defensive tackle Nick Fairley said. “No one can score on us, no one can run the ball, no one can pass the ball. It’s up to us.

“We make teams, basically as a defense, we try to make it go on our terms.”

Those terms have stifled almost every opponent this season. No team has gained more than 350 yards on the Lions. Three teams have been held to less than 225 yards, including the Vikings, who gained 212 yards Sunday.

This starts with the defensive front. The pressure they provide flusters opposing quarterbacks and takes the pressure off the secondary – an issue that plagued the Lions last season.

“It helps us tremendously because we know if we cover early on in a down and just a little later, you know we’re going to get a coverage sack,” Whitehead said. “If we don’t get a coverage sack, we’re going to apply pressure and the ball is going to flow and maybe you get a pick.”

Consider what Bridgewater said Sunday, that “everything happens so fast for me.” He’s a rookie, so part of that is expected. When you’re facing the Lions, everything lately appears at warp speed. Aaron Rodgers, widely considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league, entered Sunday with his season-low in completion percentage (59.3) and QBR (47.7) against Detroit. So did Eli Manning.

Detroit’s defensive line won those two games. In them, they felt close to being able to do what they accomplished Sunday: Control another team. It’s a performance Lions coach Jim Caldwell called “smothering.”

“It’s important for them to be really strong at what they do,” Caldwell said. “Our defensive line creates so many problems because of the fact that they don’t allow you to run the ball consistently against us and then also they can put pressure on the passer.”

That was what Lions general manager Martin Mayhew envisioned when he drafted three of the four defensive line starters in the first round in 2010 (Ndamukong Suh), 2011 (Fairley) and 2013 (Ezekiel Ansah).

“Every game should be like this for this D-line we have now, you know what I’m saying,” Fairley said. “From the guys that are setting the edges and the guys in the middle, we have a D-line that can get after quarterback and any O-line.”

In almost every game this season, they have.
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Green Bay Packers' 27-24 victory Sunday over the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium:

Shields
Nothing torn: Cornerback Sam Shields limped out of the Packers' locker room in pain but was relieved that the initial diagnosis on his left knee is that nothing was torn. The weird thing about Shields' injury was how it happened. He was lining up in coverage when he went down before the first snap of the Dolphins' final drive of the third quarter. "It just gave out," Shields said. "I felt like a little pinch. They say nothing's torn, but it hurts." Two plays later, the Packers lost their other starting cornerback, Tramon Williams, to an ankle injury. So the Packers finished the game with Casey Hayward and Davon House as their top two cornerbacks and Jarrett Bush as their nickelback. Coach Mike McCarthy had no updates on their injuries or the neck injury that Jamari Lattimore sustained in the first half. Shields was expected to undergo more tests Monday.

Lang's big save: Right guard T.J. Lang's eyes opened wide when he was asked what he saw when quarterback Aaron Rodgers fumbled on the Packers' final drive. That's probably what his eyes looked like when he saw the ball on the ground. Packers president Mark Murphy came by Lang's locker and told him it was "the play of the game." It's a drill the Packers' offensive linemen used to do in practice all the time until JC Tretter broke his ankle while doing it last season in organized team activities. They have since curtailed it.

Fake spike: When Rodgers saw former Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino on the field at halftime, he surely had no idea he was going to replicate one of Marino's most famous plays. But that's what Rodgers did when he pulled off the fake-spike play, just like Marino did for the Dolphins in a 1994 playoff game against the New York Jets. Rodgers faked the spike and hit receiver Davante Adams for a 12-yard gain to set up the game-winning, 4-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless. "That was kind of some freestyling right there," Rodgers said.
DAVIE, Fla. -- When you mention top receivers in the NFL, names such as Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas usually come to mind.

But rarely is Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson's name put in the same category, despite putting up comparable numbers the past few years.

Nelson
Grimes
Grimes
"I don't know why," Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes said of Nelson. "He does it all the time. He makes great plays and great catches. ... He has all the tools. If people don’t want to talk about him, he will just keep doing his thing under the radar."

Grimes will face one of his toughest matchups of the season with Nelson when the Packers (3-2) travel to face the Dolphins (2-2) on Sunday. Entering Week 5, Nelson was second in the NFL in receiving yards (525) and second in touchdown catches (four).

It will be up to Grimes and fellow veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan to stop Green Bay's top receiving threat. Nelson is by far the favorite target for Packers Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Nelson has 10 more receptions than the next most productive Packers receiver, Randall Cobb, who has 24 catches for 273 yards.

Nelson, who is 6-feet-3 and 217 pounds, also has a distinct size advantage that he aims to use against Miami's smaller starting cornerbacks. Both Grimes and Finnegan are listed at 5-feet-10 and 190 pounds.

"He’s strong and he’s bigger than you think he is," Grimes explained of Nelson. "And he has great hands. Aaron Rodgers puts the ball where it has to be and he makes the catch. I think his strongest thing is after he makes the catch, he’s not easy to bring down."

Green Bay's offense is hitting its stride during its two-game winning streak. The Packers are averaging 40 points per game in victories against the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. Rodgers has seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions in that span.

Miami’s secondary also enters Sunday’s game with momentum. Grimes, safety Jimmy Wilson and rookie Walt Aikens all had interceptions in Miami’s recent win against the Oakland Raiders, and Finnegan also had a fumble return for a touchdown.

The Dolphins' secondary must continue to make plays for Miami to have a chance at upsetting Green Bay.

"I guess you can say it’s shown that if you come off a good game, the confidence is a little higher," Grimes said. "It might not be every individual. But it might be some people on the team that see some things happen, get on a roll and roll like that. Me? I approach every game one game at a time."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers was nowhere near Honolulu, Hawaii the week of the Pro Bowl in February 2008. Then the Green Bay Packers' backup quarterback -- with all of seven games of reserve duty to his credit -- he was still a relative unknown.

At least he was to those who had not seen him practice every day.

But it was during the week leading up to the NFL's annual all-star game that the Packers coaching staff -- assigned to lead the NFC squad by virtue of their loss to the New York Giants in the conference championship game -- that Mike McCarthy and his then-offensive coordinator Joe Philbin began to realize fully what they had in Rodgers.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Tom LynnAaron Rodgers reached 200 career touchdown passes in 99 games last week.
As they watched the Pro Bowl quarterbacks -- Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys, Matt Hasselbeck then of the Seattle Seahawks and Jeff Garica then of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Brett Favre passed on his invitation) were on the NFC squad, while Peyton Manning then of the Indianapolis Colts, Ben Roethelisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Derek Anderson then of the Cleveland Browns were on the AFC side -- their feelings about Rodgers were reinforced.

"I remember the Pro Bowl, before Aaron ever started a game, and watching guys throwing the ball," Philbin recalled Wednesday during a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field. "And [I remember] just thinking to myself, 'Geez, we've got a guy that hasn't really played, but it certainly looks like he can throw the ball like some of these guys' that were there."

Ninety-two game appearances later, Philbin's impression of Rodgers has been proven correct time and again. As Rodgers prepares for his 100th career NFL game on Sunday, it will come against Philbin, the head coach of the Miami Dolphins.

And in preparing to face his old quarterback, Philbin sees many of the same attributes in Rodgers that he saw when he was his offensive coordinator in Green Bay from 2007-11.

"When he started playing, I think the big thing about him that from Day 1 is he's a professional and he knows what he's doing," Philbin said. "He takes the time to prepare extremely well. Those things, aside from the obvious physical skills that he has, I think that's what's really separated him and helped him develop into the player that he's become."

In Rodgers’ 99th game Thursday against the Minnesota Vikings, he reached 200 touchdowns for his career. Only one player, former Dolphins great Dan Marino, needed fewer games to hit that mark (Marino did it in 88). And no one in NFL history had fewer interceptions at the time they reached 200 touchdown passes than Rodgers, who had just 53.

Lest you think Philbin was exaggerating the conversation he and the Packers' coaches had at that Pro Bowl, McCarthy corroborated the story.

"That's really what happens to you when you go to the Pro Bowl," McCarthy said. "My first year in the league was 1993, and I can remember [then Chiefs coach] Marty Schottenheimer distinctly telling me, 'Hey kid, make sure you pay attention to these players when you're over here this week because these are the best of the best,' and to see what a top-flight tight end or linebacker and so forth [looks like].

"And we were talking about that, Joe [and I] were comparing our players to the other players at the Pro Bowl, and obviously Aaron’s name came up and we felt very confident about him."

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