GREEN BAY — The way Aaron Rodgers sees it, the Green Bay Packers have two choices.
Their offensive tackle depth chart is in tatters. Starters David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga are doubtful for tonight’s game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field, and their top three backup options at tackle – Kyle Murphy, Jason Spriggs and Don Barclay — are all on injured reserve.
“Everything we do starts with the protection, first, regardless of what the down-and-distance is,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said matter-of-factly. “That’s the way the passing game has always been built.”
So what’s the best way to protect Rodgers? McCarthy can either decide to keep his two-time NFL MVP quarterback safe by keeping running backs and tight ends in to block for him — the schematic equivalent of bubble wrap. Or, he can — to some degree, anyway — throw caution to the wind, send their typical four and five potential pass catchers out and trust Rodgers to wheel and deal, shorten up his time clock and keep himself safe by getting the ball out of his hand quickly.
Going on 10 years as the Packers starting quarterback, you know which one Rodgers would prefer, of course.
“I definitely think Option 2,” wide receiver Randall Cobb said. “You get more of your playmakers on the field. Get the ball in their hands quick and let them do what they can do. When you max protect, that means there’s only two, maybe three guys out in the route. So this gives more options for us to be able to win.”
It’s not a pure either-or proposition. There will be times during the game when McCarthy will keep more eligible receivers in to block than he’ll send out into patterns, but Rodgers’ hope and preference is to dink-and-dunk and give his guys chances to break tackles, elude defenders and turn short gains into bigger ones.
“As much as you can, we still want to be balanced in what we’re trying to do. If you just go into pass-happiness, then the defense can play towards that,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “I think you have to be able to mix it up with the max protection and the three-step, getting-it-out (approach) and getting the ball in our hands and trying to allow us to do what we do best out in space. And then you’ve got to sneak in your shots every once in a while.
“Sometimes it’s kind of fun to go 15 plays and score a touchdown. It’s all about getting in that rhythm, staying ahead of the chains, getting the ball out quick and breaking a 5-yard catch into a 25-, 30-yard gain. So that’s what we’ll have to do.”
This marks the third straight week that injuries to Bulaga (ankle) and Bakhtiari (hamstring) have forced the Packers to alter their offensive approach.
Perhaps the biggest thing it takes away is Rodgers’ uncanny ability to hold onto the ball, extend plays and then create what his teammates like to refer to as “magic.”
But at times, max protection calls put him in more peril because if the two or three eligible receivers go out and don’t get open, Rodgers holds onto the ball. It’s encoded in his football DNA to not give up on plays and not throw interceptions, so he’s unlikely to make a risky throw — even though he enters the night having thrown an interception in each of the first three games — and he only begrudgingly gives up on plays by throwing the ball away at the last instant.
“The concepts in the passing game haven’t been constricted a whole lot, it’s just protection-wise we have had to be smart about who’s playing out there and what we can handle,” Rodgers said. “It’s been tough with those guys we’ve had who’ve been out. You’re talking about two starters and then primary backups who’ve been out. So it’s been a work in progress.”
Complicating matters is that opposing defensive coordinators aren’t stupid. They’re content to rush Rodgers with only four, drop seven defenders into coverage and challenge the line to protect and Rodgers to find holes before his fill-in starters lose control of their man. That puts a premium on receivers getting open quickly — “It’s all about winning at the line of scrimmage,” Cobb said — to give Rodgers a target.
“It gives you places to go with the football,” Rodgers said of sending more receivers out. “If teams want to come in and just rush four guys against you and drop seven and you’re blocking with six or seven, you’re outnumbered 7-3 or 6-3 or 7-4 in the secondary. So that’s not a lot of guys who are open. And what it does is, it makes you hold the football longer and that’s when you take some shots.
“When you get guys out in the pattern, sometimes it allows you to deal the ball quicker or, you just have places to go should you have to extend the play.”