GREEN BAY – It’s no secret why the Packers have been so effective for so long when it comes to harvesting free plays and turning those opportunities into points.
At least, not in Jordy Nelson’s mind.
“Our quarterback,” says the Packers receiver, matter-of-factly.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense were at it again during Sunday’s 17-9 win over Seattle, cultivating three free-play opportunities off Seahawk penalties in the second half.
Two offside penalties resulted in a simple five extra yards, but the third – a 12-man-on-the-field call on Seahawks linebacker Terence Garvin – was an absolute game-changer.
Driving into Seattle territory, Rodgers had just completed a short pass to Ty Montgomery on second-and-4. The Packers didn’t change their personnel, but briefly huddled in preparation for what was a critical third down with Green Bay clinging to a 7-6 lead at the time.
That’s when the Packers noticed Garvin running to the sideline. Rodgers said the magic word and guys rushed back to the line of scrimmage. With Garvin two steps from the sideline, center Corey Linsley delivered the ball to Rodgers and the flag was thrown.
Nelson, lined up in the slot out of a bunch formation, knifed between the coverage of linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Earl Thomas to haul in the 32-yard touchdown.
“We just wanted the penalty and then everyone just went crazy. It’s almost recess all over again,” Nelson said. “You try to find an open area and get up there as soon as possible. There wasn’t anything special. I think Randall (Cobb) and I were able to stretch Earl Thomas a little bit and got on him.
“They weren’t obviously prepared and set up the way they want to be set up, so that’s why we do it and we want to keep them on the field as much as possible.”
While Nelson chalks up a bulk of the credit to Rodgers’ awareness and command of the huddle, it’s an area Head Coach Mike McCarthy places an emphasis on during training camp.
The Packers routinely simulate free plays during practice. If a defensive player jumps offside or doesn’t get off the field in time, Rodgers is doing what it takes to draw the flag.
It’s up to everyone on the offense to line up in a legal formation. Once they’re set, the play turns into an extended scramble drill until a receiver is open downfield.
Rodgers takes it seriously since it gives the offense a chance at an explosive play without the risk of a turnover. His proficiency was evident when he caught Washington with 12 players on the field during only his third snap of the preseason.
“It’s substitution patterns,” Rodgers said. “You see guys, the play ends on a second down, they sprint to the sideline. The play ends on their side of the field and they immediately know this is when we've got to get off (the field). And they understand the most important thing is just getting those first couple of guys off.
“Yeah, it’s awareness, but you still have to have discipline on the cadence, and it's something we've used for a long time.”
The zero-to-60 nature of free plays is something the Packers’ two veteran additions, right guard Jahri Evans and tight end Martellus Bennett, have had to get used to, but the benefits are obvious.
Rodgers has been the league’s most prolific quarterback when it comes to drawing defenses offside with his cadence and catching a defense trying to sneak in a substitution.
Receivers have their landmarks for where they’re supposed to be once the ball is snapped. For the offensive line, it’s imperative to stay disciplined in its fundamentals and awareness to not waste such a precious opportunity.
“You have to focus. You really have to dial in,” Evans said. “He’s back there orchestrating everything, (so we’re) keeping eyes on him and seeing what he’s doing. Coach always says you have to play with your eyes and ears open, but you really have to listen. There’s a lot going on, but it’s fun. It’s very fast-paced.”
It’s one more aspect of what makes Rodgers the quarterback he is. Those extra plays have contributed to him now being two touchdown passes shy of his 300th in the NFL.
According to the NFL, Rodgers will set a record for fewest pass attempts needed to reach the milestone if he throws two touchdowns in his next 606 attempts. Peyton Manning currently holds the record with his 300th touchdown pass coming on his 5,306th attempt.
Perhaps even more impressive is the fact Rodgers still sits at 73 career interceptions on 4,699 regular-season pass attempts – one pick for every 64 passes he’s thrown.
His interception in the first quarter against the Seahawks was his first in 251 regular-season attempts, second only in franchise history to Bart Starr’s 294.
Rodgers will look to start a new streak Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons and maybe the two-time MVP will find a few more free plays in the process.
“It’s big plays, it’s high touchdown percentage and low interception percentage. That’s the way I’ve always played since I was in high school,” Rodgers said. “Didn’t quite do it my eighth grade and ninth grade year. Got a little better in 10th, 11th and 12th and then took care of the football pretty well in college.
“But no, it’s the way I’ve always played. It’s opportunistic that I’m trying to make big plays, throw touchdowns at a high percentage and then don’t throw interceptions.”