Breaking Down What Makes Aaron Rodgers the NFL's Best QB
It has been a long and difficult process for Rodgers—from Butte Community College, to his long wait in the green room during the 2005 NFL draft, to the summer of Brett Favre in 2008—but he's clearly reached the peak of NFL stardom now.
In the NFL Network's Top 100 of 2012, Rodgers was voted No. 1 by a jury of his peers. Say what you want about the list and how it is constructed, but there's probably no higher honor for Rodgers than to be named the best player in the game by the best players in the game.
ESPN's John Clayton picked Rodgers as his No. 1 quarterback in his annual quarterback rankings, also stating that he thinks Rodgers will lead the Packers to three Super Bowls in a six-year span. Clayton even said Rodgers' arrow is pointing "up," if that is even possible.
Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller also picked Rodgers as his top overall player in his B/R NFL 1,000 series. Grading on a 100-point scale of attributes, Miller gave Rodgers a 98.5—the best in football.
I could go on and on about how different publications and sports sites have Rodgers as the best NFL player and/or quarterback. The debate against the thinking appears to be relatively small.
But what really does make Rodgers the best quarterback and player in the business?
Most would say his other-worldly stats from 2011 (45 touchdowns, six interceptions, 122.5 passer rating), his arm or his decision-making. There are generic terms for everything.
But if someone asked me that question, I could realistically point out most of the things that make Rodgers great simply by watching one half of preseason football.
When breaking down the film of the Packers' third preseason game in Cincinnati last Thursday, there's more than enough on Rodgers to show you why he's the best quarterback in the game today.
Manipulation of Space, Escapability
Michael Vick is a better pure runner than Rodgers at the position. But there is no quarterback in the NFL currently who can better manipulate space inside the pocket and find ways to escape contain than Rodgers.
He simply put on a clinic in that regard against the Bengals last Thursday.
On this particular play, the Packers have a blocker for every defender, but the pocket becomes crowded in a hurry. It appears as if the Bengals have Rodgers bottled up for an easy sack inside the pocket.
Back in 2008, this probably is a sack of Rodgers. Not in 2012.
Rodgers steps up into the small crack in the contain, escapes the pocket between two linebackers and outruns them for a 14-yard gain. What could have been a seven- or eight-yard loss turns into a new set of downs for the Packers offense.
Later on in the drive, Rodgers again escapes contain and outruns a cornerback to the far pylon for a touchdown. He'll do the same on four other occasions against the Bengals, including another for a touchdown. He finishes the day with six carries for 52 yards and two touchdowns, all on plays where Rodgers turns a negative play into a positive one.
Play-Action With No Running Game
It is rather amazing how effective the Packers are when play-action is called. Considering how little teams fear them running the football—and how geared game plans are to stopping Rodgers throwing the football—how Rodgers consistently gets defenses to bite hard on his fakes is worth noting.
Peyton Manning has always been a master of the play-action. Rodgers is getting there (or already is there), too.
Here, on the Packers' second drive, Rodgers begins with a play-action fake to Cedric Benson.
Note how hard the Bengals' three linebackers jump on the fake. All three take one or two steps in after seeing the run-action move from Rodgers.
But instead of Benson getting the football, Rodgers rolls to his right—giving himself acres of space to throw the football—and launches a 60-yard heave to Jordy Nelson, who beat both the safety and cornerback. The first snapshot doesn't show the safety, but he cheats in a step or two on the fake, too.
Nelson doesn't make the catch—the throw was admittedly a little short—but he's banged down by the safety and should have received a pass interference call, which would have given the Packers 1st-and-goal from the one- or two-yard line.
These are the little nuances of playing the position that make big differences. The sell of the fake by Rodgers made this entire play possible, even if the final outcome wasn't what it should have been.
Work Outside the Pocket
There is no quarterback in the NFL as consistently accurate outside the pocket as Rodgers, and his footwork is a big reason why. Big plays happen in the NFL when quarterbacks get outside the pocket and have clear lanes to throw the football down the field. Accurate throws are then a must.
Here, on the second drive, Rodgers does another run-action fake to Benson and rolls out, this time to his left. The fake again gets the entire Bengals front going the wrong direction as Rodgers gets comfortable outside.
The play doesn't originally look like a lot is happening; the tight end on the roll side is delayed in getting out on the boot, and it doesn't look like there's a big play to be had deep down field.
But in a flash, Rodgers sets his feet, squares his shoulders and delivers a frozen rope to Greg Jennings, who broke off his route and was coming back to the sidelines. The throw is a perfect one, put in a place where only Jennings could catch it. The cornerback in coverage, who was actually in Jennings' back pocket, simply didn't have a play on the ball.
Credit two things here: Rodgers' ability to get set when working outside the pocket and his quick delivery for getting the ball out in an instant as the defense recovered.
Manipulating a Defense With His Eyes
You have to love when an offensive route concept is augmented by a quarterback who can change what a defense is doing by simply using his eyes. Rodgers does it with the best in the NFL on a consistent basis.
On this play, the Packers run a very simple route concept to the left of the formation.
Ryan Taylor, the tight end, runs a flat pattern after getting a clean release at the line of scrimmage. Randall Cobb, the receiver split out wide, counters with a short slant inside. Instead of locking in on Cobb, however, Rodgers keeps his eyes focused on Taylor, which draws both the linebacker and safety in from their respective assignments.
From that point, this is an easy pitch-and-catch for Rodgers and Cobb. He waits until the linebacker and safety clear the throwing lane, and Cobb has a significant gain down the middle of the field. The cornerback never has a chance to recover, mostly because his help vacated the play when Rodgers fooled them with his eyes.
Again, the little things quarterbacks can do to a defense are usually the ones that get overlooked the easiest.
Anticipation Against a Blitz
Stats have consistently shown Rodgers to be one of the game's best quarterbacks when defenses come at him with more than four players. The teams that have had the most success against Rodgers are the ones that can get home with just the four players rushing the quarterback.
Here, Rodgers and the Packers are facing a 3rd-and-2 situation. The Bengals bring eight players on the blitz, meaning Rodgers needs to go "hot" with his read. He has three available options, all facing man-to-man coverage. Rodgers likely has this all figured out by his pre-snap read.
Of course, Rodgers hits the right read after the snap. Nelson runs a five-yard out against soft man, and Rodgers delivers the throw before Nelson even gets his head turned around. The throw is right on time and right on the money, giving Nelson time to spin and nearly break the tackle attempt.
Rodgers, meanwhile, never feels any semblance of heat from the oncoming blitz. He stays clean, and the Packers are continuing their drive.
There are many attributes that make Rodgers the game's best quarterback right now. I didn't even touch on some of the more obvious ones, including his accuracy in tight windows and the velocity of his throws to any area of the field.
But just seeing how well Rodgers does these little things on a game-to-game basis is evidence enough. He's mastered so many intricate details of the position that no one ever sees. The big picture is so much clearer when the small things are detailed.
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