It was the kind of hit that makes Packers fans cringe.
In the third quarter on Monday night, against the Vikings, quarterback Aaron Rodgers stepped up in the pocket, found no one to throw the ball to, and started to tuck and run, like he’s done so many times.
Only this time, just as he crossed the line of scrimmage, Rodgers didn’t see Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen closing in a hurry from his left, and Allen drilled Rodgers with probably the hardest hit the Super Bowl MVP has taken all season.
“I got up pretty quick and asked Jared if that was all he had,” Rodgers joked as he spoke with reporters Wednesday during his regular weekly briefing at his locker. “He rocked me pretty good. He knew what the answer was.”
Not that he needed to, but if any hit proved Rodgers’ toughness this season, that was it. On the very next play, he converted fourth-and-2 with a 12-yard strike to Jordy Nelson, and two more completions later the Packers were in the end zone again.
But with all due respect to Rodgers’ sense of humor and tough-guy mentality – “I’m a quarterback and I think taking hits sometimes makes me feel more like a football player,” he said – taking that kind of punishment presents unnecessary risks, especially for a quarterback who sustained two concussions last season.
It’s risky both for the team and the individual. The Packers are 9-0 and headed toward solid playoff positioning in an effort to defend their Super Bowl title, and Rodgers is in the midst of one of the best seasons a quarterback has ever enjoyed. It would be a shame to see either, or both, derailed with the stretch run looming.
“I didn’t like the hits he took Monday,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “He was hit too much Monday.”
Rodgers was sacked three times by the Vikings and forced to scramble on five other plays. The sack total for the season has climbed to 23, which puts Rodgers on pace for 40 by the end of the regular season.
That would be worse than the 38 sacks the Packers allowed last year in the regular season (Rodgers took 31 sacks, with backup Matt Flynn absorbing seven in roughly 1½ games under center). Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin spoke loud and clear during training camp about the goal of reducing the number of sacks allowed, but for all the gaudy numbers the offense is putting up in 2011, the sacks are still a “thorn in the side,” to use Philbin’s words.
Obviously, the Packers have been able to overcome a lot of lost yardage due to the sacks, with the team averaging better than 35 points per game, but there’s no knowing which hit could be a potential season-changing one, so the Packers have to start minimizing them.
Rodgers wasn’t sacked three times in one game through the first four weeks of the season but now has been sacked three or more times in four of the last five contests.
McCarthy said the pass-protection breakdowns were “spread around” on Monday night, meaning there wasn’t one particular weak spot up front. On Wednesday, Rodgers maintained his faith in his offensive linemen while at the same time calling on them to play the way he knows they’re capable of playing.
“I’m not concerned about the protection,” Rodgers said. “It’s not a matter of miscommunication. It’s just a matter of not being as assignment-sound, and in those times we have the right call on, you have to win your one-on-one matchup.”
That goes for Rodgers, too. If the protection doesn’t account for a free blitzer, Rodgers has to win that “one-on-one” by either escaping or getting rid of the ball and limiting the contact. He knows that and does that most of the time.
It’s a fine line for Rodgers, who has made many big plays by holding the ball a little longer and waiting for someone to come open. If his No. 1 priority were avoiding sacks and hits, he might not be the front-runner for MVP and the Packers might not be 9-0.
The big hit by Allen wasn’t anyone’s fault, necessarily. Rodgers never saw him and, even if he did, he might not have been able to avoid him because Rodgers had nowhere to go but forward, out the front of the pocket.
But knowing all that won’t stop the fans from cringing.
“I’m not trying to take any of those hits,” Rodgers said. “Obviously, your goal is to not take any shots that rock you like the one I took there in the third quarter.”
Injury update: McCarthy gave defensive end Mike Neal (knee) a chance to be ready to play on Sunday for the first time this season, though nothing is guaranteed. McCarthy said Neal took a number of team (11-on-11) snaps on Wednesday and continues to progress.
“If he’s ready to play and we feel he gives us what we need, then he will be up on Sunday,” McCarthy said. “But once again, we’re going through this, trying to give him more each day, and see how he responds.”
Running back Ryan Grant missed practice due to a cut on his knee that required stitches, but McCarthy said he expected him to play on Sunday.
Linebacker Frank Zombo (hamstring) also remained sidelined while linebacker Desmond Bishop and guard T.J. Lang both missed practice for personal matters. Bishop tweeted that his grandmother passed away. Additional coverage - Nov. 16