Rodgers’ mobility makes him a different QB
The Board Drill has passed through Customs and returned to Canada, where George Cortez had used it during his earlier tours of duty in the CFL, too.
And while he doesn’t put his BC Lions quarterbacks through it every single day now – “Almost every day,” Cortez insisted with a chuckle – it remains largely unchanged from when a young, future NFL MVP was using it to learn the skills that would serve him so well later in his football life.
In the immediate aftermath of the Green Bay Packers’ victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy got to talking about Seattle’s ferocious pass rush and how Rodgers had repeatedly stepped forward in the pocket to give himself some space to maneuver as edge rushers whizzed by high and wide.
While it was Rodgers’ nifty footwork that made his Houdini act work, Rodgers told McCarthy that the credit went to Cortez, his offensive coordinator at the University of California-Berkeley in 2003 and 2004 who ran the Golden Bears quarterbacks through the drill at every practice and now serves as the BC Lions’ coordinator under ex-Cal coach Jeff Tedford.
“Every. Single. Day,” Rodgers said.
It paid off in impossible-to-miss fashion on Sunday night, when left tackle David Bakhtiari and fill-in right tackle Don Barclay struggled at times with Seahawks pass-rushers Bruce Irvin, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. Sometimes, the pocket would collapse from the sides. Other times, Bakhtiari and Barclay would ride their man high and wide away from their quarterback, giving him enough space to step forward in the pocket before making a throw or getting outside to his right or left.
But almost every time, Rodgers found a sliver of open space to keep the play alive, then delivered an on-target throw for a completion. He finished the game 25 of 33 for 249 yards with a pair of touchdowns and a ho-hum passer rating of 116.9 in the Packers’ 27-17 victory.
“I mean, he put on an absolute clinic on Sunday night as far as movement in the pocket,” backup quarterback Scott Tolzien said Thursday. “It was funny, I was talking with [quarterbacks/wide receivers coach] Alex Van Pelt at one point in training camp, and I think he had a good way of describing it: ‘It’s like the game is The Matrix for him, in the slow-motion scenes.’ He can see all the bodies coming at him, and it’s like slow motion for him. He’s just … different.
“It’s very hard as a quarterback to have your vision downfield and have a progression 1-2-3-4 but also have a feel in the pocket at the same time. And that’s where his feel is just at a different level. He’s the best in the business at it.”
And it all dates back to the Board Drill that Cortez ran Rodgers through at Berkeley, despite Cortez’s best efforts to downplay its role. (“I think genetics may come into play at some point.”)
The drill is actually a simple one. Cortez lays boards down and has his quarterbacks go up-and-back vertically along each one, while moving horizontally from one board to the next, as quarterbacks rush forward and backpedal to each end of each board as they go through the gauntlet.
Although there’s also a ball-security element to the drill that has served Rodgers well during his NFL career – “Always two hands on the ball,” Rodgers recited – the goal is clear: To create enough space in the pocket to make a throw.
“When you’re in the pocket, there’s a lot of hurricanes going around you at times,” Cortez explained Thursday night in a phone conversation from Vancouver, where he watched most of Sunday night’s Packers game on TV. “So it’s not a drop (back) drill; it’s a work-in-the-pocket drill.
“The whole idea is you’re working forward when the rush is coming high and wide and the pressure’s coming around the edges, and you’re working backward when the pocket it being pressed into your face. You’re trying to always stay in a position where you can throw the football.”
That certainly fits Rodgers’ skill set. While he is capable of taking off and running when the opportunity arises – entering Monday night’s game against Kansas City at Lambeau Field, Rodgers has rushed 14 times for 58 yards – his plan is more often to escape so he can make a throw instead.
“He’s really good moving around,” Cortez said. “Watching the games on TV from afar, and having known him 10 years ago now, he has a great feel for what’s happening around him and the ability to see down the field through the trees and not to be that guy that’s worried about the rush.”
Part of that is Rodgers’ fearlessness; the other part is the way the Packers’ protection is designed, with stout guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton and center Corey Linsley.
“He’s, if not the best, one of the best at it, and [Sunday] night was a very good illustration of that,” said Packers associate head coach/offense Tom Clements. “There may be other quarterbacks who are in that situation and they look at the rush, whereas Aaron feels the rush and is looking downfield and he’s able to maneuver in the pocket, buy some time.
“That’s the way it’s designed. We always talk about [how] the center and the two guards, we want that to be firm because we recognize you’re going to have edge rushers [who you need to] run up the field so that the quarterback can step up. If the middle isn’t firm, if you’ve got edge rushers and then you’ve got push from the core, you don’t have good options.”
Although Bakhtiari was beaten for two sacks Sunday night, there were other times when he and Barclay did exactly what they should with their edge-rushing nemesis: Ride him right out of your TV picture.
“You want to cater to your quarterback and what he likes,” Bakhtiari explained. “Some quarterbacks may like to have everything in front of their face – wash [the pass-rushers] down in front of them and they can evade out to the right or left. So they can see what’s going on. Some quarterbacks like to step into their throw. So maybe let them come high and wide, have a shorter corner so the quarterback can step into his throw and feel it better.”
While that approach requires Rodgers to trust that Lang, Sitton and Linsley will hold firm, it still requires some measure of fearlessness on Rodgers’ part, since the front wall can collapse at any second.
“It’s pretty neat. You watch other guys, and they don’t do that,” Linsley said of the way Rodgers moves forward. “That’s just one of 10,000 things that separate him from nearly all the other quarterbacks in the league. I didn’t realize before I came here that that was one of his staples. It’s just awesome to see a guy like him with that much talent do that.”
Rodgers will be challenged again this week by the Chiefs’ pass rush, led by two terrific edge rushers in Justin Houston, who had 22 sacks last season, and Tamba Hali. If the interior line can handle defensive tackle Jaye Howard, who repeatedly collapsed the Denver Broncos pocket into Peyton Manning last week, then Rodgers should still be able to step up into what he calls “the sweet spot of the pocket” and either make throws or make his escape.
“That’s the key, if you have interior guys who can rush,” Rodgers explained Thursday, using the St. Louis Rams – the Packers’ Oct. 11 opponent – as an example. “What makes them so tough is, they have [Michael] Brockers and [Aaron] Donald, who can really push the pocket in the middle. When they push the center of the pocket, that makes it tough on the quarterback. You can’t get up in that sweet spot, and you can’t get out.
“It’s like a U. You keep the interior part of the U, that’s the sweet spot of the pocket to be throwing from. If that opens up, that’s when you become dangerous and you can throw it on the run. And I can get up and out and throw both ways. Some guys are runners to the left and throwers to the right. When they get up and out to the right, they throw it; when they get up and out to the left, they run it because they can’t get their shoulders around. But defenses know I can do both and throw it both ways.”