On Sunday, Aaron Rodgers made the best throw in a clutch situation I’ve ever seen, a 36-yard shot down the left sideline to Jared Cook.
Rodgers’ body position (rolling left) and the absolute on-target missile, I’ve never seen a better throw. You will read and watch countless people discuss this play, drawn up by Rodgers on the fly in the huddle. However, you won’t read or watch it discussed through the eyes of an offensive lineman, with help from three of the Packers who were in the huddle Sunday in Dallas.
Every part of a game plan is scripted out. We have plays for third-and-long, plays packaged for the 1-yard line. There are shot plays at the +40, trick plays at midfield … on and on. So, of course, there are a set of plays for the end of the game. The Hail Mary is schemed. One WR at the front of the end zone to catch a batted ball, the tallest guy in the middle to jump and one WR at the back of the end zone. Well, offenses also design plays for the situation the Packers were in against the Cowboys on Sunday.
With the game tied at 31 and 35 seconds left, the Packers started their final drive at their 25-yard line with two timeouts knowing they needed at least 35 yards to get into field goal range. The plays in this situation fall into the category of the “final four plays.”
These are plays designed to get down the field, out of bounds, or in the Packers’ situation, with those timeouts, using the entire field while taking up minimal clock time. Included in those final four is a screen, which the Packers ran on Sunday to gain 17 yards on second-and-10 in this situation.
Typically, these plays are run half-heartedly at the very end of the Saturday walk-through, just to help the wideouts remember the routes.
As an offensive line, we assume we’ll get a three-man rush in most of these final four situations, so we build in double teams to most of these plays. It’s always made me wonder why teams don’t bring pressure in those situations. It would force the quarterback to throw quicker and not allow routes to develop.
These are slides left to protect the blind side 99 percent of the time, so the back would double team with the right tackle. Most quarterbacks I’ve played with are pocket passers and it’s designed for them to remain in the pocket. There have been situations and plays I’ve practiced, where the quarterback eventually finds his way out of the pocket, to the right, to buy himself time for a longer downfield throw.
What makes Aaron Rodgers so efficient in these end of game scenarios is his ability to get outside of the pocket to buy himself time to let these routes develop. Teams have started to catch on when he rolls right. They’ve started to bring pressure against the Packers in end of game situations.
It’s very unique having to handle pressure in a final four situation. If you head back to last season in the Divisional round, the Packers at the Cardinals, on the final play of regulation in a Hail Mary situation, the Cardinals bring pressure from the right, and the Packers don’t block it well. The Cardinals know Rodgers wants to throw right, so they force him left.
The Cowboys took a page from the Cardinals’ playbook and brought pressure the two plays previous to the long throw to Cook.
Here they bring double edge pressure and sack Rodgers. The back, Montgomery is late scanning to the safety pressuring left, and he crushes Rodgers. I’m amazed Rodgers held onto the ball. This forces Green Bay to use a timeout, backs them up, and in all honesty, it should have ended the game. Jeff Heath should have gone for the strip on this sack. If that happens, the Cowboys would have recovered and kicked a game-winning field goal.
On the next play, the Cowboys run a designed pressure for this situation. They rush three and have two linebackers spying Rodgers. If he rolls out to a side, they will come downhill and force a quicker throw.
It doesn’t totally work, but the concept is now known to the Packers.
Now we get to the final play. We’ve all seen the TV copy showing Rodgers possibly telling Cook to run a deep over (crossing route).
Well what did he tell the offensive line? I spoke with right guard T.J. Lang, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, and left guard Lane Taylor to get an idea of the scheme for this play.
Everyone in the huddle knew they would need to give Rodgers just that extra bit of time. Maybe even more than the usual five seconds he gets.
Rodgers told them, “I’m rolling left.” Like most offensive schemes with a right-handed quarterback, the Packers don’t roll out to the left often. It’s rarely practiced. It does take work as an offensive line figuring out the nuances of rollout protection. As evidenced on the final play.
The idea of a rollout protection is to allow the offensive line to set aggressively to the side of the rollout without worry about getting beat inside. If someone crosses your face to the inside, the lineman next to you will take him. This last rollout wasn’t the usual way it’s protected, and it’s different by design.
When the Packers rollout, Rodgers sits in the pocket for a second, to allow the tackle to the play side and pin his defender inside. The defensive end will rush inside when given the option, and since Rodgers is still in the pocket, he will rush inside 100 percent of the time. This protection allows the quarterback to get out clean, and it allows an uncovered lineman to leak out to protect the throw.
Because this isn’t a true rollout, the left guard doesn’t need to help the left tackle with an inside move. As Taylor told me “I just let Dave [David Bakhtiari] take care of the defensive end and I adjusted the defensive end’s inside move.”
It allows him to leak out and block that spying linebacker, which didn’t happen the play before. This allow Rodgers extra time.
Without this block, this play doesn’t happen.
Now, here’s where not practicing rolling left shows itself. If you look inside, the center is treating this like a sprint out, but the right guard is hanging back a bit because it’s “dash” protection, not a straight sprint out. So the defender splits the right guard and center. However, unlike what Twitter would tell you, T.J. Lang uses a slingshot (which is legal) to regain leverage on the defender. Next level stuff here.
Once Rodgers was able to roll out and buy time with Taylor out there to protect him, he could unleash this ridiculous rocket.
First, Rodgers’ feet are both pointing forward at the moment he’s throwing the ball, so it’s just an arm throw. He had a tiny window to fit that ball into. The Cowboys are running a cover 2 defense. The “honey hole” in any cover 2 defense is between the second level player and the safety. This is basically where Rodgers found Cook.
The outside defender stayed man on the wide receiver running a clear out, and No. 31 was left in a bind. He sees Cook running behind him, but can’t totally commit to covering him because Rodgers can run. He gets caught in between. I’m going to assume he thought the defender covering the go would settle back into his zone to take Cook. Either way, no one covers him and Rodgers finds the only spot where Cook can catch the ball. It’s a remarkable play.
The Packers’ offense is on fire. The Falcons offense is historic. If you like points, Sunday’s NFC Championship game is for you.