Lions’ slim playoff hopes hinge on colossal challenge of slowing Aaron Rodgers

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
 
| The Detroit News

As the Detroit Lions allow themselves to dream of an improbable playoff run to close out the season, an old nemesis stands ready to trip them up as they come out of the starting blocks. 

In his 16th season, at the age of 37, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers might be having the best year of his career. And the Lions defense, which allowed the sputtering Chicago Bears offense to put up a season-high 30 points a week ago, will need to suddenly arrive at the answers they’ve been searching for all season if they hope to stand a chance this Sunday. 

Already one of the most-efficient passers in NFL history, Rodgers has taken that to a new level in 2020. Through 12 games, he’s leading the league with 36 touchdown tosses, compared to four interceptions. He’s also avoiding sacks at an unprecedented rate, getting dropped behind the line just 13 times, after taking 85 the past two years. 

Lions interim coach Darrell Bevell was there at the inception of Rodgers’ Hall of Fame career, serving a final season as a Packers assistant coach when the franchise stopped the quarterback’s unexpected fall in the 2005 draft, selecting him with the No. 24 pick of the first round. 

Asked if he ever envisioned Rodgers having this kind of sustained, high-level success, Bevell, who isn’t prone to hyperbole, said he could see it right away.

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“You’re probably going to think it’s easy to say, but absolutely I did,” Bevell said. “I remember breaking down the draft that year and Aaron was my top-rated guy for us there. I don’t know how we had him rated as a team — won’t talk about that — but as far as how I had them, Aaron was the No. 1 guy.

” … I thought if you were a team picking early, that he would definitely be a guy that could help you,” Bevell continued. “We ran a system that would enable him to play quickly, and then all of the skill sets that he has, I think they’re showing up every single day. He’s playing as well as any quarterback ever played in this league.”

The Packers had the luxury of not needing Rodgers to play right away. In fact, he sat for three seasons behind Brett Favre. The rest, of course, has been history. 

In his first 12 seasons as the Packers’ starting quarterback, Rodgers has led the team to six division titles, nine playoff berths and a Super Bowl crown while winning two MVP awards. And with the Packers at 9-3 and pushing for the best record in the NFC this season, Rodgers is making a strong case for a third. 

Lions defensive end Everson Griffen is as familiar with Rodgers’ ability as anyone on Detroit’s roster. After spending the first decade of his career in Minnesota, he’s seen Rodgers twice a year, nearly every year, since entering the league. 

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Griffen has had his fair share of individual success against Rodgers. He’s sacked the Packers quarterback more than anyone this side of Jared Allen, representing more than 10 percent of Griffen’s career total. 

“Aaron Rodgers, he is a very difficult quarterback to bring down,” Griffen said. “He’s a pocket passer, and he’s also even excellent when he escapes the pocket. The way their tackles set, they set to make you feel like you want to come inside because they know that Aaron, he can escape outside. I feel like our main concern is just to focus on us, focus on beating the guy in front of you and doing your job and executing your assignment. Focus on just pushing the pocket and getting in Aaron’s face to be able to disrupt him during the passing time.”

Rodgers’ mobility has always been a factor, but at 37 years old, he’s not running like he used to. His rushing numbers have declined four straight seasons and he’s on pace for a career-low in that department. 

But as the aforementioned sack total illustrates, his movement skills are still a problem for opponents. 

“I can show you 50 clips from this year when he’s standing back there and moving his feet in the pocket and just buying time,” Lions defensive coordinator Cory Undlin said. “I would say the biggest thing is he doesn’t have to (run). He’s got a lot of weapons out there and he is surgical if you want to start bringing more pressure, whether it’s five guys or six guys, the ball is out.”

When Rodgers is able to buy time, he’s able to unlock one of the more dangerous elements of the Packers’ offense — the scramble drill. You’d be hard-pressed to find a team in NFL history that has consistently executed the broken play better than the Packers with Rodgers. 

When he escapes the pocket, the inherent ability of his receivers knowing where to go is second to none, leading to big gain after big gain when most quarterbacks would be looking to throw the ball away in those situations. 

“Obviously him and his receivers are always on the same page, they obviously work on that stuff and they have a system for how they do it,” Lions defensive backs coach Steve Gregory said.  “For us, really on the back end, the biggest thing is when those things happen, and things break down, really playing with good eye discipline. … We call it ‘plaster on your receiver’ that you play with good eye discipline, you’re not looking back at the quarterback so that the receiver can break away from you. Really just got to be disciplined in that area.” 

Combine all that with one of the best receivers in the game in Davante Adams, as well as one of the league’s best dual-threat running backs in Aaron Jones, and the Packers are an offensive juggernaut, averaging a league-high 31.6 points per game. 

The Lions experienced that first-hand earlier this year, when the Packers racked up 488 yards and hung 42 points on them in Week 2. 

So after giving up 30 to the Bears last week, and 41 to the Houston Texans the week before that, it begs the question: How are the Lions going to slow Rodgers and the Packers? Who knows, but their slim playoff hopes depends depend on it. 

Packers at Lions

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: Fox/WJR 760

Records: Lions 5-7; Packers 9-3

Line: Packers by 7.5

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