Aaron Rodgers was playing in pain Sunday, but the Green Bay Packers made the proper adjustments to cater the game plan for their injured quarterback as they locked up the NFC North title with a 30-20 win over the Detroit Lions.
Everyone could see that Rodgers was limited in his movement during the second half at Lambeau Field after going down with a calf injury (on a touchdown pass) earlier in the ballgame. That impacts pocket mobility, the boot game, sprint action, the deep ball and throws outside of the numbers.
Think about the mechanics we talk about the quarterback position along with the footwork that is required to play at top level in the pro game. Plus, Rodgers is at his best when he can move in the pocket and break contain to create positive throwing angles. But given the adjusted route tree in the second half, pre-snap alignments for the quarterback and the Packers' run game, the MVP candidate still produced the type of numbers (17-of-22, 226 yards, two touchdowns) that win in the NFL.
During the second half, Green Bay worked almost exclusively out of the "Pistol" (one/two-back) and "Shotgun" alignments. That allowed Rodgers to avoid three- and five-step drops while also handing the ball off from a stationary position.
It was a slight change, really, that didn’t impact the Packers' core running game with Eddie Lacy in both the zone and power schemes. And Lacy (26 carries, 100 yards) ran hard all afternoon up in Green Bay. He was physical at the point of attack and dropped his pad level multiple times to grind out yards versus one of the best defensive fronts I’ve seen on tape this year.
That commitment to running the football also opened up throwing windows inside of the numbers for Rodgers to target the slant/hitch in Green Bay’s packaged plays. These are run/pass options for the quarterback off the mesh point with the offensive line run blocking.
Here’s an example in a diagram drawn from James Light (jimlightfootball.com) with the quarterback handing off on the inside zone or throwing the hitch based off the read from the second-level defenders.
With Rodgers, that ball is coming out quickly. There is no wasted movement or hesitation in his reads. That allowed the Packers quarterback to target Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb once the linebackers (or safeties) stepped to the line of scrimmage versus the run action with Lacy.
These aren't down-the-field throws that will test the top of the secondary. But with Rodgers injured, the packaged plays created more opportunities for the quarterback to make short, inside throws to move the sticks and advance the ball.
What else did we see? The dig (square-in), slant, option and smash route with Nelson, Cobb and tight end Richard Rodgers working against press coverage. Again, routes that break inside of the numbers with the Packers receivers generating separation or gaining leverage back to the football at the top of the stem.
Let’s take a look at Rodgers’ touchdown pass to Cobb on a smash-seam combination with Green Bay clearing out the middle of the field inside of the red zone.
With the tight end working up the field on the seam route, the Lions are going to match the linebacker to the vertical release and "top" the slot receiver with safety Glover Quin. That puts Cobb in a one-on-one matchup underneath versus nickelback Cassius Vaughn where the wide receiver has to beat press and win to the inside.
Look at the throwing window for Rodgers underneath as the linebacker carries the seam with the safety sliding over the top of Cobb. However, it’s the move from the Packers wide receiver on the release that leads to the touchdown pass.
Cobb utilizes a quick, outside stem at the snap to set up Vaughn. This forces the slot cornerback to open his hips (plays for an outside cut) and allows Cobb to break back to the middle of the field on the smash route.
After the catch, Cobb showcased his immediate acceleration to put this ball in the end zone, but don’t forget about the route combination. This was a quick read for Rodgers that allowed the quarterback to get the ball out on a throw to the middle of the field.
Looking ahead, there is no question the Packers need Rodgers healthy to make a run in the postseason tournament—especially if Mike McCarthy's team travels out to Seattle for a possible NFC Championship Game versus the top-tier Seattle Seahawks defense. However, the Packers did show us Sunday that they could make the proper adjustments and still win games against a tough defense, even when the best quarterback in the league isn’t at 100 percent.
That's good football.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.