No Weapons? No Problem. Aaron Rodgers Is Back as NFL's Magician

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 15, 2019

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers celebrates as he walks off the field following an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, in Green Bay, Wis. Green Bay won 23-22. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)
Mike Roemer/Associated Press

Aaron Rodgers dazzled despite a lack of help at nearly every turn as the Green Bay Packers (5-1) sneaked away with a last-second 23-22 victory over the Detroit Lions (2-2-1) at Lambeau Field. 

"It didn't feel like a win until the very end," Rodgers told ESPN's Lisa Salters on the field directly after Mason Crosby's walk-off 23-yard field goal. 

The reason it didn't feel like a win until the end is the Packers played from behind all night, the officials played a major role in the outcome and Rodgers needed to carry the offense because of a lack of a quality supporting cast. 

Two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Davante Adams missed his second straight contest as he heals from turf toe. The Packers wide receiver corps consisted of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Geronimo Allison, Jake Kumerow, Darrius Shepherd and Allen Lazard. 

Who? Exactly. 

On top of that, Valdes-Scantling missed some time when he got rolled up from behind by a running back. Also, Allison left the game after a devastating hit

To make the degree of difficulty even more severe, drops plagued the Packers offense, particularly in the first half. Running back Aaron Jones and veteran tight end Jimmy Graham bumbled sure touchdowns despite picture-perfect throws. 

The one time Rodgers was slightly off and slightly behind, Shepherd slipped coming out of the route and let the ball hit him in the facemask before it ricocheted into the awaiting arms of Lions defensive back Justin Coleman. 

Despite everything, Rodgers still completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 283 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was particularly good in the fourth quarter, which is bit of a role reversal based on this season's previous performances. 

As FiveThirtyEight's Ty Schalter noted, Rodgers' production has dropped off a cliff in crunch time. The two-time MVP's fourth-quarter quarterback rating, yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt had significantly decreased heading into Week 6. 

Rodgers' interception occurred during the fourth frame, but the miscue was entirely the receiver's fault. Otherwise, the quarterback completed nine of 12 passes for 147 yards, including a majestic 35-yard touchdown toss to Lazard, who entered the game with one career catch. 

Two things became abundantly clear down the stretch. 

First, Rodgers' precision is exemplary. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the quarterback's connection with Lazard had only an 18.7 percent completion probability, the least probable completion so far this season for Rodgers. The second-year target had less than a yard of separation, yet the 15-year veteran dropped the pass in the proverbial bucket. 

That touchdown pass wasn't the only small-window throw Rodgers completed with the game on the line. Below is another example of him threading the needle, this time to Graham between two defenders: 

ESPN Stats & Info identified three tight-window throws in the fourth quarter, and they were Rodgers' three smallest-window completions all year. Eventually, the receivers must create more separation. They can't continue to make life so hard on their quarterback. But that said, Rodgers' pinpoint accuracy can't be questioned. He can make any throw at any time in any situation. 

Furthermore, Rodgers deftly navigated the pocket most of the night and extended plays when necessary. 

"Aaron was spectacular," head coach Matt LaFleur said, per Packer Report's Andy Herman. "He was great all night long. Never want to take that for granted."

But the emergence of Lazard could be a significant boost for the entire offense. The undrafted wide receiver caught four passes for 65 yards, all in the fourth quarter. He's a big-bodied target (6'5", 227 lbs) with outstanding body control and reliable route-running. Lazard will never create much separation, but he knows how to body off defenders and win contested passes. 

Clearly, he has earned Rodgers' confidence in a very short amount of time. 

"We're kind of putting things together," the seven-time Pro Bowl signal-caller told Salters. "With Davante out and Geronimo goes down, we finally got Allen in the game and that's what he does. He's been doing it in practice a bunch. Good to see him finally get an opportunity to make some plays." 

The Packers have lacked a true second receiving option all season.

Adams is the focal point of the scheme, but Lazard could take some pressure off everyone else if he can build upon Monday's performance. Though that's asking a lot from a young receiver who just caught his first NFL touchdown, his potential is limitless if Rodgers trusts him, especially after he went into the huddle during the final drive and told his all-world quarterback what play and route he wanted. 

"For a young guy to do that, how can you not have confidence in that?" Rodgers said, per Zach Kruse of USA Today's Packers Wire. 

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - OCTOBER 14: Allen Lazard #13 of the Green Bay Packers catches a touchdown in the fourth quarter Justin Coleman #27 of the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field on October 14, 2019 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Image
Quinn Harris/Getty Images

A budding relationship appears to be forming since Rodgers actually asked for Lazard to enter Monday's contest. 

"I asked the receivers coach if 13 could go in for a little bit," Rodgers said, per ESPN's Rob Demovsky

Lazard's rapid growth is almost necessary since the Packers defense won't always be able to bail out the offense. The previously impenetrable unit, at least to start games, uncharacteristically surrendered multiple big plays and easy completions against a freewheeling Matthew Stafford and the Lions.

In fact, Detroit scored more first-quarter points (10) than Green Bay had allowed all season (three). Stafford's 168 first-quarter passing yards set a new Lions franchise record, according to the team's staff

Green Bay's defense is greatly improved, and playmakers can be found at all three levels. However, the group is still prone to surrender yards if it doesn't get home to the quarterback because defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's play-calling is so aggressive. 

Thus, the offense must hold up its end of the bargain. So far so good, and Rodgers is just now playing to the level everyone expects. 

Once Adams returns to accompany an improved ground game, and if Lazard continues what he started in prime-time, the Packers offense can go from pedestrian—the unit ranked 24th overall in total offense entering Monday's game—to spectacular. The team knows the league's best quarterback is back on his game and ready to pull a few tricks out of his hat when needed. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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