Why Aaron Rodgers Is Poised for Massive Performance Against Vikings Defense

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Why Aaron Rodgers Is Poised for Massive Performance Against Vikings Defense
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Aaron Rodgers enters Week 8 in Minnesota playing at one of the highest levels of his career.

Don't be fooled by the play of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers in the Packers' Week 3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, in which the quarterback threw for two interceptions and posted his lowest passer rating this year. Rodgers is performing every bit as well in 2013—and as well as he has performed through the first six games of any single season since he became Green Bay's starter back in 2008.

And there is every reason to believe that in prime time this Sunday night, he could put up some big numbers against a Minnesota Vikings (1-5) defense that is currently fifth-worst in the NFL.

When a quarterback is as consistently accurate, efficient and productive as Aaron Rodgers, the definition of "massive performance" necessarily needs to be quantified.

That raises the question...what would be considered "massive" for Rodgers?

Rodgers doesn't think that he has had the "gaudy statistical marks" this year—as he himself said to ESPN Wisconsin's Jason Wilde on the Tuesdays With Aaron podcast on Oct. 15—that he has put up in past seasons.

While there are certainly a few outliers in exceptional individual games in past seasons (particularly in 2011), Rodgers may be underestimating himself.

In Week 2 against the Washington Redskins, he put up his third-highest yards per attempt (11.4) in any game since becoming a starter, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. That was the same game in which Rodgers passed for a career-high 480 yards.

And only in 2011, when he threw for a whopping 2,037 yards through the first six weeks, did he have more passing yards in that time frame than he has now (1,906).

In fact, as the table below shows, Rodgers in 2013 is either outperforming or matching his averages in passing yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and interceptions.

Aaron Rodgers Through 6 Games Each Year as Starter
Passing Yards Completion Percentage Yards/Attempt TDs INTs Passer Rating Record
2008 1,482 65.1 7.6 11 4 98.2 3-3
2009 1,702 65.8 9.6 11 2 113.7 4-2
2010 1,546 64.4 8.0 10 7 91.2 3-3
2011 2,037 69.9 9.8 17 3 122.4 6-0
2012 1,637 67.9 7.3 16 4 102.8 3-3
Avg. through 2012 1,680 66.6 8.5 13 4 105.7 N/A
2013 1,906 65.0 8.6 13 4 104.5 4-2

Pro Football Reference

Yes, against the league's 28th-ranked pass defense, Rodgers can certainly post some flashy numbers this Sunday in Minnesota.

And here's the thing: He'll do it without top targets Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley and likely, James Jones.

Don't believe it? Take a look at Rodgers' numbers in the Packers win over the Detroit Lions in Week 5, when Cobb, Finley and Jones were active. Then compare those stats with that of last Sunday vs. the Cleveland Browns, when Jones and Cobb did not play and Finley left the game with a neck injury.

Rodgers vs. Lions as Compared to Rodgers vs. Browns
Passing Yards Completion % TDs INTs Passer Rating
Week 5 @Lions 274 66.7 1 0 106.8
Week 7 vs. Browns 260 69.4 3 0 117.8

Pro Football Reference

Sure, Rodgers threw for 14 fewer yards against the Browns, who, it should be noted, currently have the league's No. 7 passing defense as compared to the Lions' No. 27-ranked unit.

Rodgers also completed more passes, averaged more yards per attempt and threw more touchdowns—and did so to an often double-covered Jordy Nelson and to two rookies, Jarrett Boykin and Myles White who, prior to Sunday, had caught a total of six passes combined in their NFL careers. 

To understand how Rodgers can have a huge statistical day against the Vikings on Sunday without his usual top receiving weapons, it's helpful to first examine why the Packers' game plan against the Browns was so effective.

After losing Cobb and Jones to injury the week prior, the Packers were expected to open their Week 7 contest against the Browns by feeding Lacy often to keep Cleveland's defense honest. Establishing a running game would create opportunities for Rodgers to pass off of play-action.

The Browns certainly expected them to start that way.

On the Packers' first drive, Rodgers lines up under center and they bring their Ace personnel onto the field: Two wide receivers (Boykin on the left and Nelson on the right), two tight ends (Jermichael Finley on the left and Andrew Quarless on the right) and running back Eddie Lacy in the backfield. 

As the screenshot below shows, Cleveland operates in its base defense and brings two linebackers down to the line of scrimmage. Boykin and Nelson are each in man-to-man coverage by Browns cornerbacks Buster Skrine and Joe Haden, respectively. The safeties were not deep, and in fact, safety T.J. Ward is shifting back toward the box.

Cleveland expects Green Bay to run the ball with Lacy. 

The Browns line up to defend against a run play by Lacy, but Rodgers is planning a pass.

Rodgers, however, is planning a pass. Boykin runs a comeback route down the left sideline and, though the pass is incomplete, the Packers continue to throw: Each of their first seven plays was a pass.

This aggressive play-calling by McCarthy, made possible by the recent success of Lacy (who leads the NFL with 301 rushing yards in the last three weeks, according to ESPN Stats & Info), kept the Browns defense guessing. Of course, the Packers did use Lacy—22 times for 82 yards—but Green Bay's passing game will continue to be strong despite injuries to its three top receivers. 

The reason for that is Rodgers.

Rodgers has thrown 143 completions so far in 2013. Of those, only about half were thrown to Cobb, Finley and Jones. The receiver Rodgers has targeted the most this season is Nelson (45 targets, 32 receptions). Boykin, with nine receptions in 2013, already has about half the catches Jones has had (20). 

When Rodgers' targets are injured, the Packers don't stop throwing the ball.

They find more people for Rodgers to throw to.

Consider the pass chart below which shows Rodgers' attempts vs. the Browns. Only four of those same eight names appear on the pass chart for Week 3 vs. the Bengals. 

Aaron Rodgers Pass Chart vs. Browns
Deep Left (1/5, 39 yds) Short Left (10/12, 71 yds, 2 TD Deep Middle (0/0, 0 yds) Short Middle (8/8, 72 yds) Short Right (5/7, 52 yds, 1 TD) Deep Right (1/1, 26 yds)
Jarrett Boykin 1/3, 39 yds 3/3, 23 yds 4/4, 41 yds, 1 TD
Jermichael Finley 2/2, 25 yds, 1 TD 1/1, 10 yds 1/1, 11 yds 1/1, 26 yds
Johnathan Franklin 0/1, 0 yds
John Kuhn 1/1, 8 yds
Eddie Lacy 2/3, 11 yds 3/3, 15 yds 0/1, 0 yds
Jordy Nelson 0/1, 0 yds 3/3, 12 yds, 1 TD 2/2, 30 yds
Andrew Quarless 0/1, 0 yds
Myles White 0/1, 0 yds 1/1, 9 yds

Pro-Football-Reference.com

To have a massive day against the Vikings on Sunday, the Packers will again turn to Boykin to step up into his new role (for now) as the No. 2 receiver. If he was able to catch eight passes for 103 yards and a touchdown against Cleveland's No. 7-ranked pass defense, he will be able to do that and more against the 28th-ranked Vikings pass defense.

Rodgers will play to Boykin's strengths by looking for him on short screens to the left and right, passes on which Boykin had seven grabs on seven targets for 64 yards and a touchdown.

Boykin has not been highly effective thus far on comeback routes along the sideline. He dropped passes of that nature in Week 6 against Baltimore, and he dropped two against the Browns (including on the aforementioned first pass play of the game analyzed above).

The advanced nature of the comeback route, requiring precise timing between quarterback and receiver, seems to be slightly above Boykin's comfort level. 

/Getty Images
Jarrett Boykin had the first touchdown of his career, a 20-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers, against the Browns in Week 7.

Rodgers has thrown the longest pass so far in 2013, and he's tied for the most 25-plus yard passes in the NFL. If Rodgers wants to go deep, he'll do best to find Nelson on a streak route, at which Nelson always excels.

Nelson, who has caught passes of 30-plus yards in five of six games this season, should have an easier time getting open Sunday against Viking cornerbacks Josh Robinson or Chris Cook than he did against the Browns corner Joe Haden, one of the game's best, who shadowed Nelson throughout.

If the Vikings have any hope of stopping Rodgers on Sunday, Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen will have to come up big. Though Minnesota only has the No. 28 passing defense, Allen is ranked as the 15th-best pass rusher by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He has four sacks this season. 

However, Rodgers has historically been excellent against the Vikings, and that is unlikely to change this week. According to Packers.com, his career passer rating of 116.4 against the Vikings ranks No. 1 in NFL history against a single opponent.

"Aaron Rodgers' success is a result of Rodgers’ talent," said Packers.com editor Vic Ketchman. "This is a special player, and he’s playing at the highest level of his career."

The Vikings will find that out the hard way, on a national stage, come Sunday.

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