Breaking Down Aaron Rodgers' Early-Season Struggles

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Breaking Down Aaron Rodgers' Early-Season Struggles
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Aaron Rodgers was a football god in 2011. He's showing a mortal side this season.

The statistics tell one part of the story. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is not playing at the blistering pace he set for himself last season.

Now, after the Packers limped to a 2-3 start, Rodgers is ready to admit the same. During his weekly radio show with Jason Wilde of 540 ESPN Milwaukee, Rodgers said his performance this season hasn't lived up to his own expectations or those set by others after 2011:

I haven't played as well as the expectations are, obviously. The ones I put on myself, I like to think are as high or higher than the ones people outside put on me. It's interesting to look at the stats for what they are and think I'm not playing my best football right now.

A year ago, Rodgers put together one of the best seasons ever by an NFL quarterback. In just 15 games, Rodgers threw for 4,653 yards, 45 touchdowns, six interceptions and an NFL-record passer rating of 122.5. He was awarded the NFL MVP award for his efforts.

Because of his historic season, the bar had been set, and set high. Rodgers instantly became the consensus No. 1 player in the game. The top of the quarterback hierarchy was all his. The NFL was supposed to be his for the taking over the next five to seven years.

Everything hasn't exactly gone according to the script this season.

By no means is Rodgers having a poor year in 2012, but compared to last season, his numbers seem mediocre at best: 1,307 yards (on pace for 4,182), 10 touchdowns (32), four interceptions (13) and a passer rating of 97.0. 

Not exactly Mark Sanchez numbers, but each category is down considerably over the pace he set in 2011. The same goes for the rest of the offense.

The Packers, who averaged 35 points a season ago and finished with the second-highest scoring offense in NFL history, are scoring just over 22 this season. 

Maybe regression was to be expected. Rodgers was about as perfect as a quarterback could be for an entire season in 2011, and beating that year would have taken another Herculean effort. When a player rises that high on the football peak, the only logical thing to do next is to take a slight slide downward. 

But there are tangible factors we can find as to why Rodgers' numbers—and the general production of the Packers offense—are down. 

Here's a breakdown of those factors:

 

Teams are getting pressure with four rushers

Late in 2011, two defenses were successfully able to contain Rodgers. The Kansas City Chiefs and New York Giants, both of which beat Rodgers and the Packers, found success with rushing just four players and dropping the rest into coverage. 

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE
Rodgers has been sacked 21 times in 2012.

Take away the big play, focus as much defensive personnel into coverage and beat a five-man offensive line with four. It was the blueprint then, and it remains the blueprint now. 

So far in 2012, that blueprint has continued working. 

Rodgers has been sacked 21 times in five games, most of which have come against four- or five-man pressure schemes. The Packers are on pace for 67 sacks allowed, which would break the franchise record of 62 set in 1990. 

Part of the problem has been the play of right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who has regressed severely in pass protection in 2012. According to Pro Football Focus, Bulaga has allowed 24 pressures (three sacks, three quarterback hits and 18 hurries) in five games in 2012 after allowing just 21 (one sack, two quarterback hits and 18 hurries) in 17 games last season. 

Combined with the next couple of issues, Rodgers simply hasn't been as effective in handling pressure. 

 

Packers receivers aren't beating seven-man coverages 

Green Bay's receivers, billed as some of the best in football, simply haven't won as many one-on-one matchups this season. As a result, Rodgers has held the football far too long on far too many occasions. 

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
Coverages are beating the Packers receivers.

The deep posts and Cover 2 beaters along the sidelines haven't been as open in 2012 as in previous seasons. While Rodgers has waited for the big plays to finally show life, defensive lines have mostly had their way with finding the Packers quarterback in the pocket. 

Part of that problem has been the absence of Greg Jennings, who hasn't played in two games and sat out the better part of the third. The Packers struggled in Kansas City in 2011 to get open without Jennings, and that problem has spilled over into 2012. 

Whether it is better route concepts, beating press coverage at the line of scrimmage or finding weak points when the pocket breaks down, Green Bay's receivers haven't done a good enough job at getting open.

As Rodgers has shown throughout his career, he'll take a sack over throwing a dangerous ball into coverage almost every time. 

 

Receivers aren't making as many plays in 2012

A year ago, the Packers receiving corps had a fantastic year. If there was a single knock, it was a few drops here and there. But overall, the receivers made brilliant play after brilliant play, helping both the quarterback and stat lines look historically good. 

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE
Receivers haven't made as many 'wow' plays in 2012.

Those same plays have been strikingly absent in 2012. 

Jordy Nelson has missed a few big plays. Donald Driver dropped a touchdown in Seattle. James Jones couldn't haul in a spinning catch in the end zone against Chicago. Jermichael Finley continues his frustrating career of mind-blowing potential but head-to-desk drops. 

How many times last season did a receiver make an adjustment to a throw or beat good coverage with a fantastic catch? There's probably 25 or more if you went back and watched every Rodgers completion last season. 

In 2012? There aren't many to count. 

Rodgers had a historical year in 2011, but he didn't do it alone. The receivers haven't given him a big hand to start this season. 

 

Accuracy has been a touch off

Finally, we get to an issue that incorporates a lot of the struggles: Rodgers has simply missed a bunch of throws he made in his sleep last season. 

Sunday's first-possession miss to Jordy Nelson was the crowning jewel of Rodgers' inaccuracy issues this season. Nelson had the Indianapolis Colts cornerback beat silly, and Rodgers had a clear angle and trajectory to make the throw, which certainly would have gone for a long touchdown.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Accuracy has been just a touch off for Rodgers this season.

Instead, Rodgers missed by a touch, overthrowing Nelson by a yard or two. Last season, that kind of play goes for a touchdown every time. 

On his radio show with Wilde, Rodgers said he probably misses that throw five times out of 100. Rodgers could probably say the same thing about a number of throws he's misfired on this season. 

Again, while the completion percentage (68.8 percent) for Rodgers is very good through five games, his subtle misses on maybe five to 10 throws this season have cost the Packers dearly. 

 

Turning the football over

Rodgers hasn't lost a fumble in 2012, but that is to be expected. Few quarterbacks protect against lost fumbles better than Rodgers over the last three seasons. 

What hasn't been expected is Rodgers' propensity to throw interceptions this season. He's thrown four—Rodgers had just six last season, three of which came off tipped or deflected passes—and could realistically have five if Lance Briggs would have held onto an easy pick in Week 2. 

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
Rodgers is on pace for 13 interceptions in 2012.

Thirteen interceptions, or his current pace in 2012, would tie a career high for Rodgers. He also threw 13 in 2008, his first season as a starting quarterback in Green Bay. 

The four interceptions have also been uncommon with regard to the times in which they have occurred. According to PFF, all four of Rodgers' interceptions this season have come in the second half, and also when there has been zero to little pressure on the quarterback. 

His picks against San Francisco and Indianapolis were game-changers. A rally killer and rally starter, respectively.

The interception against Chicago could have been a rally starter. And a terrible throw down the sideline resulted in the interception against New Orleans

The turnover plays are the striking aspect of Rodgers' early struggles, and he's said as much. 

Rodgers, again via Wilde:

Throwing the ball to the other team – I've done that four times already. I’m fortunate (linebacker Lance) Briggs dropped one against Chicago as well. Just uncharacteristic of the way I've played. (I’ve also) made some checks that have been unproductive, missed some throws I'm accustomed to hitting. Haven't played the way of the standard I've set.

Overall, both the stats and film agree. Rodgers simply hasn't played as well in 2012 as he did during a blistering 2011 season. The fans know it, and he knows it. 

Regression was always to be expected, but maybe due to more natural causes. The number of tangible reasons for the slide are concerning. 

Once a football god, now mortal, Rodgers has a hole to climb out of both statistically and record-wise. Expectations remain that he eventually will. 

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