GREEN BAY — The smile crept across Aaron Rodgers’ face – part pride, part mischief. There’s nobody better at extracting free plays from opponents – by getting them to jump offsides or by catching a lollygagging 12th man as he runs off the field a tick too late – than the Green Bay Packers quarterback.
“It’s a part of what we do,” Rodgers said. “I know teams prepare for that.”
And yet, they can’t seem to avoid it.
Rodgers did it again on during Sunday’s 17-9 season-opening victory over the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field, delivering the knockout punch on a late-third quarter touchdown strike to Jordy Nelson that more or less put the game out of reach.
This time, it came on a third-and-2 play from Seattle’s 32-yard line, when Rodgers saw linebacker Terence Garvin trying — unsuccessfully — to get off the field before Rodgers called for the ball from center Corey Linsley. (Rodgers uses a one-word alert that tells everyone on offense that he’s going for it.)
In the chaos that ensued on the Seahawks’ side of the field — something other defenses have experienced, too — Nelson converted his route to a post and Rodgers hit him in stride behind linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Earl Thomas.
“That’s the value of quick-snapping them,” Nelson said. “They’re not set, they don’t know what to do, they’re just trying to cover ground and cover space and we tried to find an opening. Aaron obviously threw a perfect ball and we were able to connect.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, since becoming the Packers’ starter in 2008, no quarterback in the NFL has victimized opponents for touchdowns on free plays like Rodgers. In fact, with 12 touchdowns on offsides or 12-men-on-the-field penalties, Rodgers has triple the amount of the next-most successful quarterback, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (four). Those 12 touchdown passes have averaged 30.8 yards.
Rodgers said Packers defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, who played for the Washington Redskins the past two years, told him upon arriving in Green Bay that Washington’s coaches were adamant about not letting Rodgers trick them into such mistakes. Surely, Seattle thought about it during the week, too, as veteran defensive end Michael Bennett has been caught offsides plenty of times during past Packers-Seahawks games. (Rodgers got Bennett to jump offsides twice Sunday.)
“Teams have figured it out a little bit with the substitution patterns,” Rodgers said.
But on the touchdown, Rodgers saw Garvin hustling to the sideline but knew he got the snap off before Garvin reached the white paint.
“My recollection of the play is getting the snap and looking to see if the flag is called. So I looked at the linesman, he threw the flag, and then my first kind of vision was Jordy kind of bending to the post,” Rodgers explained.
Added coach Mike McCarthy: “It’s huge. It’s a big play opportunity. You can sit up in the office all night, draw up plays, you know, have great scheme, this and that, but it’s always a challenge to create big play opportunities. Aaron directs it, but really there’s communication from the other players out there also. It’s definitely been a plus for us.”
In fact, Rodgers said a free play isn’t the only plus that comes with the reputation he’s developed for catching defenses off-guard. Even if he doesn’t draw a single penalty, there are fringe benefits, he said.
“Sometimes, we get 12 on the field. But what it (also) does, it makes those guys run full speed off the field every time. So it’s expending energy every time,” Rodgers explained. “It’s more than just the threat of giving up a free play. You might have to burn a timeout, or a guy is going to sprint full speed off the field. Those are body blows for us.”
On Sunday, it was a knockout blow.