How Aaron Rodgers dissected the Cowboys

Aaron Rodgers is playing the game at as high a level imaginable, and in a style, that feels almost too good to be allowed.

Week in and week out he’s making plays no other quarterback on earth can. He’s everything Joe Montana, Steve Young and John Elway were rolled into one: Smart, with dazzling feet, an electric release and an uncanny ability to extend and create extraordinary plays.

His exploits post-snap often mean he’s not nearly praised enough for his excellence prior to the ball being in play. On Sunday, he was in complete command of the offense, controlling the game at the line before performing his wizardry after the ball was snapped. The Packers’ 12 personnel package — one back and two tight ends — was simply too much for Dallas to handle on Green Bay’s opening drive, and Rodgers went to work at the line of scrimmage orchestrating mismatches, manipulating the defense with his eyes and getting the ball out quickly.

With Jared Cook, Richard Rodgers and Ty Montgomery all on the field at the same time, the Cowboys couldn’t match up. All three players are able to line up right across the formation: outside, in the slot or even in the backfield (both Cook and Rodgers can play the h-back role). That presented Dallas with a personnel issue, who do they put on the field, and who covers each receiving threat once they’re all flexed out? Do you leave cornerbacks outside regardless of who’s lined up across from them, or match up bodies?

Rodgers keyed in on those matchups, with the Packers using more pre-snap motions and shifts than usual in an attempt to reveal man-coverage (29th in the NFL the season in pre-snap movement). By doing so, Rodgers was able to isolate the most favorable 1-on-1 mismatch and go directly to his best target. All too often, the Cowboys were left with a linebacker on either tight end.

The 12 personnel is traditionally a running personnel package, but the flexibility of the Packers’ top three pieces allows Rodgers to survey the field and get to whatever plays he wants. If the Cowboys had opted to play dime — taking linebackers off the field — he could motion Montgomery into the backfield, along with a tight end, and run against a weaker box. If, as it did, Dallas decided to stay heavy, or at least leave one poor coverage linebacker on the field, he could get right to that matchup.

Before Dallas had time to blink, the Packers took advantage. They drove down the field running the same personnel grouping out of empty formations, spreading the field and isolating the covering linebackers on islands. Rodgers knifed through the defense for the game’s opening score, finding Richard Rodgers 1-on-1 against Sean Lee.

Pre-snap, they didn’t motion or move anyone. However, Lee was lined up directly over Rodgers in the slot, who was running a fade.

As the ball was snapped, Rodgers worked first to Davante Adams to his right, to confirm the coverage and hold the safety in the middle of the field. Rodgers held the safety long enough for his tight end to beat Lee in coverage. For as good a player as the Cowboys’ linebacker is, asking him to flip his hips and run toward his own end zone isn’t one of his strengths. The tight end burned past him, and with the Cowboys’ front jumping offside, Rodgers had a free play to take a shot and find his namesake for the touchdown.

To combat the personnel issues, and how they were getting eaten up in man-coverage, the Cowboys zoned up. But it was a pretty egregious error. Against all-time great quarterbacks you simply cannot play a heavy amount of zone-coverage unless there is consistent and overwhelming pressure.

Under Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys play a lot of zone, and rarely bring any extra heat, blitzing on just 16 percent of quarterbacks dropbacks this season. When fully healthy in the secondary, they’ve played more man-coverage this year, yet in big spots they’ll still utilize just a three- or four-man rush and be comfortable giving receivers a free release off the line of scrimmage.

They defaulted to zone on Sunday after the Packers’ opening drive. Yet, Rodgers shredded them all the same. A less than stellar receiving crops was not challenged to win individual matchups, and with Rodgers able to move around they were able to find soft spots in the Cowboys’ zones.

Here, Geronimo Allison was given a free release from the slot. Rodgers was able to dance around while the Cowboys rushed four, with no player getting near him. After moving in the backfield, he found a wide-open Allison for another explosive play.

This angle better highlights the problem. Allison is an undrafted rookie, yet no Dallas defender is even in frame when he makes this grab, working through multiple soft spots before Rodgers eventually finds him.

Not getting hands on the receivers and challenging them to beat press coverage was a mistake. Particularly given the lack of a pass rush throughout the first quarter. None of the Packers’ offensive linemen conceded a single pressure at any point during the game, only a chipping running back and tight end gifted a pressure of any kind.

It’s not like that was anything new for Dallas. They finished the year 28th in the league at pressuring opposing quarterbacks dropbacks. Putting that up against the league’s hottest quarterback, with his receivers being left to cross the LOS unimpeded, was an unfair fight. Rodgers marched Green Bay down the field for two more consecutive touchdown drives.

On their opening three drives of the game, the Packers scored 21 points and put up 245 yards.

However, Marinelli — who is himself a wizard — adjusted. On the Packers’ final seven drives, they scored just 13 points and managed only 184 yards, as good as you could ever hope for against an out-of-this-world Rodgers.

The Cowboys DC ditched the zone coverage and began to challenge the Packers receivers at the line of scrimmage. They pressed across the board, and began to dial up more blitzes. They also incorporated a spy — a player who drops back and mimics the movement of the quarterback — as they looked to limit Rodgers’ ability to move and break the pocket.

It worked.

Rodgers began to feel some heat. And the Cowboys defense forced enough three-and-outs to give their offense an opportunity to get them back into the game. But it wasn’t a breakdown in Green Bay’s offensive line, they still man-handled the Dallas front. Instead, Marinelli began to use zone blitzes, with defensive linemen dropping out and secondary players blitzing. However, Dallas’ boundary corners continued to carry receivers rather than dropping to spots, with defensive linemen and edge rushers riskily dropping into coverage.

All three of the Cowboys’ sacks came from defensive backs — Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, and Jeff Heath. Each guy came from a different spot but they got the same result: A free run at the quarterback or a block from a running back.

On a big third-down play in the third quarter, Marinelli drew up one of his best. Prior to the snap, the Cowboys showed a “mug” look, feigning that they’re bringing everyone and forcing the Packers to set their protection to 1-on-1 individual blocks. Rodgers recognized the pressure and made an alert call at the line, ready to get the ball out to the designated hot receiver. But Dallas didn’t bring everyone. Instead, it dropped out Jack Crawford — a defensive tackle stood up as linebacker (№58) — plopping him into a zone right in Rodgers’ throwing lane. The quarterback took the snap and tried to fire immediately to Geronimo Allison on a quick slant, but the Cowboys corners were still playing press coverage and Crawford walked right in front of any attempt.

Inside, Church blitzed up the middle. He beat Ty Montgomery in protection and dropped Rodgers, who had held onto the ball after Crawford had dropped in front of the slant pattern.

Despite the varied tactics, Rodgers still had some success moving the ball. He quickly identified when the Cowboys were using a spy and was able to attack. Like earlier in the game, motions allowed him to reveal some coverages, but mostly he took his key from linebackers Lee and Justin Durant, who were the guys charged with following his movements.

Playing against a spy meant Rodgers himself had accounted for one member of the defense. By doing so, he was able to survey the field knowing it was man coverage and go to work on any matchup he wanted. Again, the Packers regularly used empty formations — particularly on third downs — to give Rodgers five different outlets to make a play. Even when his average supporting cast was unable to separate from the coverage, he was able to put the ball in spots where only his guys could make a play.

Despite that, for much of the second half the Cowboys were able to play Rodgers to a draw: conceding a wonderfully executed touchdown drive, but turning him over on a poorly thrown shot down the field.

Then he went into magic mode.

Throughout the Packers’ eight-game win streak, Rodgers has found his sense of rhythm and timing, something that plagued he and the entire offense all of last season and at the start of this one. Too often they were reliant on second phase isolation plays that demanded Rodgers to be perfect on each and every down, with a sprinkle of quarterback pixie dust needed just to be able to move the ball consistently.

But Rodgers’ final throw, an audacious 36-yard rope moving to his left, had nothing to do with rhythm or timing. It was pure talent. He reverted back to his backyard football ways, uncorking the throw of the season. According to Randall Cobb, there wasn’t even a play call, “Rodgers just told each receiver what to do, like a kid drawing in the dirt” he told Robert Klemko of The MMQB.

The quarterback’s faith in his supporting cast is impressive. Yes, he plays in front of the league’s best offensive line in pass protection. But his arsenal of weapons features a cast-off from the Rams (albeit a talented one), a couple of players who’ve switched positions and an undrafted rookie.

Now he leads them into Atlanta as the most feared individual player in the game: One seemingly capable of defying the laws of physics. Sunday may serve as his magnum opus, but in the middle of the hottest streak we may ever see out of the game’s most valuable position, who knows what he will conjure up next.

Originally published at www.all22.com on January 16, 2017.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.