Why Aaron Rodgers will be close to impossible for Lions to defend on Sunday

Green Bay's QB has the No. 1 PFF grade since Week 7, and has been close to unstoppable since then. Here's why.

| 5 months ago
2017 fantasy qb rankings

Why Aaron Rodgers will be close to impossible for Lions to defend on Sunday

It seems hard to believe that it isn’t long ago we were all asking what was wrong with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense.

After six weeks of this season Rodgers was the league’s No. 29 QB in PFF grades, below Denver’s Trevor Siemian, among many others. He still didn’t seem comfortable within the Packers offense, despite arguably the league’s best pass protection working to keep him clean, and we were questioning what needed to change for Rodgers to rediscover the play that made him the game’s best QB in previous seasons.

Since that point in the season, however, Rodgers has been the league’s best-graded QB, and the only one who has been able to rival the play of Tom Brady overall. He has dragged himself up to the No. 4 spot in PFF grades among QBs at 91.9, just fractions behind Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan over the full season, with Brady some distance out in front. We have seen Rodgers back to his best.

As recently as late November, the Packers were in deep trouble. They sat at 4-6, two games back from both the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings in the division. Now after a five-game win streak they have closed that gap, are tied with the Lions at 9-6 atop the division, and would be in a “win-and-in” scenario even without the Week 17 opponent being Detroit, thanks to tiebreakers.

From being a team looking listless and without a chance of resurrection, they are now one of the league’s hottest teams and an opponent nobody wants to draw in the playoffs.

That has been down entirely to the offense, and mostly down to Rodgers, who has rediscovered his comfort level on the field and is doing things that other QBs simply cannot and do not do.

The Lions’ season depends on figuring out a way to defend Rodgers in a way they couldn’t manage earlier in the season, even with Rodgers in the midst of his funk, and against a player who at his best might be impossible to defend. The first time the two teams met, Green Bay was able to put up 34 points, and while Rodgers only passed for 205 yards, he threw four touchdown passes and had a passer rating of 146.1 when kept clean in the pocket.

The average QB in the NFL sees a 33.8-point drop in passer rating when pressured, but Rodgers this season still has a passer rating of 90.8 when pressured (a drop of 16.9 points), and over the past four weeks his passer rating actually goes up by 12.4 points when heat is applied. At that point, you’re effectively relying on actually sacking him to prevent him making plays, and that isn’t going to happen often enough to form the foundation of a game plan.

Rodgers’ relationship with pressure is one of the most interesting aspects of his game. Pocket presence is something that gets thrown around as a universal term, but it isn’t a binary state, with QBs either having it or being without. wk-17-qb-pocket-presence Pocket presence can almost be seen as a progression through martial arts. White belt quarterbacks feel nothing at all in the pocket. Their attention is consumed downfield on receivers and coverage and every time pressure arrives, it takes them by surprise.

Crazy as it seems, QBs can still make it to the NFL with white belt levels of pocket presence, and some go through their entire careers at that level, with a total and complete obliviousness to what’s developing around them. If you get a lucky-enough run, you can even play well with that blissful ignorance of how close you just came to disaster on the play.

The next stage of pocket presence is QBs who feel pressure developing and take off from the pocket when it comes, potentially turning sacks into positive plays by scrambling, buying time for a pass or just getting to a point where they can throw the ball away. This is blue or purple belt levels of pocket presence, depending upon how good the QB is at it. It’s obviously more useful than not feeling anything, and it can lead to some huge plays, but it’s limited in how effective it can be over the long term. Colin Kaepernick has this kind of pocket presence, and when he takes off he can hurt teams, but his effectiveness is limited if he is contained within the pocket. Russell Wilson also has this type of pocket presence, but he is far more dangerous in almost all facets of the game than Kaepernick.

Then we get to the more advanced levels of pocket presence. Our brown or black belts are the guys who not only feel the pressure, but are able to anticipate it a little earlier in the process, and instead of taking off to escape it, can make subtle movements in the pocket to ease away from it without completely detonating the leverage of everybody trying to pass block. This is where the Tom Bradys and the Peyton Mannings of the NFL reside. It’s extremely high-level stuff, and it means that pressure has to be dominant to really make an impact. Just squeezing the pocket doesn’t have the same effect on these QBs as it would against the lower-ranked pocket-presence belts, because they can adjust and make plays as if the pocket were clean. Even if they sense pressure coming that will blow up the play, they feel it coming soon enough that it rarely ends in a sack. These QBs typically have a very low sack rate compared with the rate at which they are pressured.

They aren’t, however, the pinnacle. Above even the black belts of pocket presence lies something else, and this is where Aaron Rodgers resides. Rodgers is our mythical ninja of pocket presence — he’s the Rickson Gracie. He doesn’t just sense pressure developing and neutralize it with subtle movements within the pocket like the brown and black belts, but he is actively influencing the pressure with his movements by effectively resetting the leverage of his blockers back and forth as he adjusts in the pocket and forces pass-rushers to match him or lose contain.

On these plays it looks like Rodgers is tapped into The Matrix. He feels everything at once, in slow motion, and is able to influence the pass rush and his protection, all at the same time as actually reading the defense and finding an open receiver. Simply put, it’s freaky, and while other QBs might be able to play better overall, I’m not sure any are capable of the same kind of thing Rodgers is from a pocket management standpoint.

Obviously, Rodgers has the abilities of all of the previous stages of pocket presence, too, and at some point, the pressure is so severe there is no option but to bail and escape it, but there are plays where other QBs would find themselves hurried forced to move enough to collapse the pocket, but Rodgers can just continue to bounce back and forth in equilibrium within the pocket and perpetually keep the pass rush from having a clean angle to attack him.

While it’s true that Green Bay’s pass protection has been exceptional this season, I think that they also benefit at times from this ability Rodgers has to reset their leverage when they are in danger of allowing a defender to influence the pocket. Typically, the longer a QB holds the ball, the worse things are for his blockers, and a QB that moves around is a nightmare for a blocker to deal with, because he doesn’t know where he is going to be at any given moment, but with Rodgers there is some give to go along with that take.

Part of what allows him to have this effect on pass-rushers is that he has shown for years he is a legitimate threat to make plays with his legs, or make even bigger plays with his arm, after escaping the pocket. Teams only have so much fear of what Brady can do to them in the open field if they flush him from the pocket, but that takes on a whole new level with Rodgers. He could turn man coverage into a huge gain on the ground by running at defenders with their backs turned to him, or he can flick the ball effortlessly 50 yards downfield when the coverage breaks down. Teams want to keep him in the pocket, so they can’t sell out to rush and vacate their lanes, and every time he makes a move, they have to counter it.

Herein lies the problem for the Detroit defense. In any normal instance, you want to get after a QB as much as possible to pressure him into mistakes. As noted earlier, league-wide that takes a QB’s passer rating down more than 30 points. Even if you don’t actually get him to the ground, statistically speaking you turn Tom Brady into Trevor Siemian simply by applying pressure. Last week, the Eagles pressures Eli Manning 21 times, and while they never managed to sack him, Manning’s passer rating fell almost 70 points to 10.7 on those plays. They forced him into two interceptions and he completed passes for just 57 yards when hurried.

Rodgers is both harder to pressure, and not affected the same way as other QBs when he is. The Lions, like most teams, will be trying to keep him bottled up in the pocket, but that gives him the platform to just work the pocket like no other QB and kill them anyway.

Right now, Aaron Rodgers may be the league’s most difficult puzzle to solve, and it’s one Detroit needs to work out if they want to be playing football come the postseason.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Mike

    Plus the refs.

  • Johnamos

    Play to contain him because you can’t get to him through all of the holding that his line employs. Bloody his nose a few times with Killabrew and or Whitehead from the blind side. Smack up his receivers after the catch. Knock the tight ends legs off at the knees and abuse their wholly lousy defense to negate his heroics then lose at the last minute on a bogus call from an official.

    • Crewthief

      Whining about refs, lol. You can always spot a loser fanbase; just look for the whiners complaining about refereeing keeping their team from the promised land. Strangely, the fanbases of teams that win, rarely, if ever, blame a loss on the refs. Oh by the way, this’ll make 24 years since the Lions have won the division. Enjoy watching other teams play in the playoffs (as usual) John.

      • Johnamos

        Possibly it sucks even more to know that your team is the recipient of so many favorable calls. Perhaps it makes winning hollow. I remember a few years ago when the Packers were on the receiving end of a bad call against the Seahawks. Talk about whining. I can only imagine the cheese head nation. If this were a weekly phenomenon instead of once every few decades.

        • Crewthief

          LOL. The “Fail Mary” is one of the most botched calls in the history of the NFL. Your team has lost so much because your team has sucked over the years. It isn’t referees, it isn’t penalties, it isn’t some conspiracy theory… they’ve just sucked. I’ll grant you the Divisional Round loss against Dallas a couple years ago, but that’s about it.

          • Johnamos

            You’ve watched a lot of Lions games have you? Probably not. Undoubtedly they have been a poor football team for years I do not believe that there is a conspiracy. It is more an attitude and expectations. The Packers get the benefit of a positive attitude toward a presumably white team from a white city and we all know where the Lions come from. You can’t see it because you are inside of it. The Dallas playoff game was one of any number of games like it. It just happened to be on national TV so you watched it. You would not want to watch them all but I promise you, if your team received the same treatment you would feel the same way.

          • Crewthief

            Ah, so now it’s racism, LOL. What a joke. Seriously. What. A. Joke. There are far more players of color on that Packers team than not, just as the rest of the NFL is a majority of people of color. Just stop, it’s embarrassing. Every team has a handful of calls not go their way in a given game, there’s nothing special about Detroit (strangely this is appropriate from a number of different angles). Your problem is that you’re using confirmation bias to make your argument. You literally have no facts, and are simply using your own (biased) anecdotes as evidence. And the you have the audacity to imply some massive racism conspiracy because of where the Packers come from? So ridiculous.

          • Brian M


  • pobodysnerfect

    LIONS FANS: You do understand that when you complain about the refs, you are actively encouraging other fanbases to laugh at you right? EVERYONE gets bad calls. EVERYONE. Shut. Up.

    If you lose on Sunday, you’ll lose all on your own. Own it.

    • pobodysnerfectCan’tUseLogic

      The fact that you think that teams getting a DIFFERENT NUMBER of bad calls doesn’t affect games is laughable. Shut. Up.

      • pobodysnerfect


        Tinfoil hats and conspiracy theories. This is the best that Lions and Vikings fans can do! Hilarious.

        Newsflash genius: Despite the honor of creating a screen name solely to troll me, your post does nothing to dissuade intelligent NFL fans that your team has been a laughingstock over the years on its own merit. You don’t need the refs to screw you over – your team has done that beautifully on its very own.

        Thank you for the literal LOL. Please continue thinking the way you do. It gives us educated NFL fans such a good laugh.

        • Crewthief

          It’s incredible that anybody could read this very well put together article, digest it’s pretty deep football analysis, and then drop down to the comments section and whine about refereeing, LOL. Seriously, what a joke. Nothing’s set in stone, and of course “any given Sunday”, but I wouldn’t be even slightly surprised if the Pack beat those guys by 3+ touchdowns, to be honest. Aaron Rodgers is playing at a level i’ve only ever seen HIM play at. He’s at or even above his 2014 level of play and sitting right around his peak of the 2011 season. I know we get spoiled and all that, but the throws and pocket movement he’s demonstrating is phenomenal to behold.

          • pobodysnerfect

            Dude. Us Packer fans deal with this garbage FOUR times a year from Lions and Vikings fans. While not every fan does this, a large percentage of them do. They seriously think there’s some kind of “NFL fix” to get the “premier” teams to win big games.

            It’s disgusting. At least Bear fans know when they suck.

          • crosseyedlemon

            While there may be no grand scheme to create a “fix” there certainly can be biased officials and this applies to sports other than the NFL as well. In every sport there are players who will have the major of “judgement calls” go their way. James in basketball, Crosby in hockey and Earnhardt in NASCAR are merchandising gold so officials are going to be wary about messing with them.

          • pobodysnerfect

            That’s true. But the flip side of that is that those players and franchises have all been great for an extended period. In a sense, they’ve “earned” those calls. I remember when ARod took over for Favre in 08. We didn’t get ANY “judgement calls” until 2011 – after we won it all.

            Refs are human too. If you want to take all human judgement out of the game, play with robots.

            Further, I remember MANY times that Barry Sanders, Randy Moss, Chris Carter, Randall Cunningham, Calvin Johnson etc… pleaded for flags and got them. Lions and Vikings fans are being HUGE hypocrites.

            Bottom line, if the Lions and Vikings want to be perceived as “premier” franchises with “premier” players, they need to WIN convincingly in BIG games for awhile. They haven’t. So they won’t.

            And I do not feel the slightest bit bad for them.

  • ChiTownMike

    Lions and Viking fans whining about the refs…
    Their teams would get blown out constantly by the Packers if the refs would ever call Xavier Holds and Nevin Lawson for all of the PI they get away with.

  • Sam Serra

    I’m not a fan of any of those two teams, but why the f*ck are you Lions fans already whining about the refs 3 days before the game? It’s like you guys don’t believe your team can win this game at all.

    • pobodysnerfect

      See above. Tinfoil hats, JKF assassination theories and watching The X-Files is in vogue with these guys. Always has been.

  • Rolo Tomassi

    The Packers MVP is Clete Blakeman

    • pobodysnerfect


  • crosseyedlemon

    No chance of Rodgers getting sacked or injured after this kind of a buildup….lol. PFF has been jinxing QBs all season.

  • james barklow

    This is a very nicely done article, clear and informative.

  • Mikerw0

    This is pretty dumb. Putting aside that football is an intensely team oriented business, Rogers has won 65% of all games he has played in and is 7-6 in playoff games. His winning percentage is 6th among active QBs and 19th all time (Brady is first at 77%). So he loses 35% of games he plays in and only wins 54% of playoff games. Everyone is beatable.

  • justjoseph

    “Impossible to defend”…really.
    This is the NFL. The right game plan, the right performance, and the Packers absolutley can lose this game at home. They did last year, to the Vikings.
    And similarly, NO ONE picked the VIkings.

    AR had a 15 point lead, a first down and the ball in the 2013 NFCCG at home with 5 1/2 minutes on the clock. Rodgers failed to get a first down for the rest of that game and the Packers lost in OT.

    Rodgers generally loses games when his team trails in the 4th quarter. If this game is close, I would take the Lions.

  • Joe Doe

    So Russell Wilson is a stage 2 quarterback, which I agree with because he runs first. He does often reset himself and put himself in a position to throw, which I still believe puts him in the stage 2 category, since he doesn’t do an Aaron type of job keeping his eyes down the field. With the Seattle offensive line though, I’m pretty sure they are way better off with a stage 2 quarterback than a stage 3 or 4. In other words, I think Russell does and would do a better job behind that line than any other quarterback in the league.