SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers makes his first career appearance at Candlestick Park, the home stadium of the team he idolized as a child, all eyes will be on the former Cal star who was notoriously spurned by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2005 NFL draft.
For 49ers cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, two men whose mission is to prevent the 'Stick from becoming Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood, Saturday night's NFC divisional playoff game represents a golden opportunity to display their shutdown skills to the masses.
"When you make it to the playoffs, man, you want to go against the best, just to prove to everybody else that you can play with the elite players," Brown said Wednesday. "Anytime you're playing a big-time game, you definitely want the pressure to be on you. So, for us, it's a challenge — and it's a challenge we're going to live up to. It's gonna be fun. It's exciting. They'll make plays as well as we will, and let the best man win."
Though there aren't many, if any, players better than Rodgers — the reigning NFL MVP had another stellar season in 2012, leading the league with a 108.0 passer rating — Brown and his fellow San Francisco defensive backs have reason to be confident. In September's season opener at Lambeau Field, the Niners limited the Packers to a pair of offensive touchdowns in a 30-22 victory.
Rodgers had a pretty good statistical day, completing 30 of 44 passes for 304 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception, but the Niners' defense harassed him all afternoon: He was sacked three times, hit on five other occasions and scrambled five times for 27 yards, making him Green Bay's leading rusher.
In that game, San Francisco's secondary disguised its looks and managed to unnerve Rodgers at times. Rogers and Brown, in particular, disrupted the timing of the Packers' talented quartet of wide receivers with physical and proactive play at the line of scrimmage.
"He was uncomfortable with some of the things we did," Rogers recalled. "I can't say exactly what we played, but two of our looks were kind of different to him. The way we looked on the inside, and the way the safeties [lined up], it was a new look. We've got a couple of DBs on this team that can match up with their receivers, and we did a good job of getting after them.
"But I'm pretty sure they've been practicing for [what we did the last time], that they'll have a game plan for it. We'll have some different stuff that complements those same calls, and we're gonna try and confuse him. But it's gonna be real tough."
Rogers, who joined the 49ers as a free agent in 2011 after six seasons with the Washington Redskins, remembers how uncomfortable his near-namesake was in 2005, when the two men were selected 15 picks apart in the draft. Rogers, a former Auburn star, went ninth overall; Rodgers, who at one point had been the presumptive first overall pick, sat squirming in the green room for 4 ½ painstaking hours before the Packers finally took him with the 24th selection.
That the Niners chose Alex Smith over Rodgers, who'd worked his collegiate magic across the San Francisco Bay in Berkeley, may stoke the competitive juices Saturday of a quarterback who seems determined to channel every perceived slight as a motivating force.
"I'm pretty sure he wanted to be that No. 1 pick," Rogers says. "Anybody would want to go back to their home state. But I think he plays with an edge, anyway. He always wants to be at the top of his game. I think he just wants to be the best and be perfect at what he does. Each and every week you see it.
"[Getting passed over] wasn't good at first, but then to see what he's doing now, it paid off for him. This was a losing team — maybe if he came here, it'd be a different Aaron Rodgers. He went to Green Bay, sat behind Brett Favre and got his chance. He won an MVP, a Super Bowl and is arguably the best quarterback in the league. So, it worked out for him."
A strong argument can also be made that Rodgers has the league's best and deepest receiving corps, as Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb are agile, crafty wideouts with excellent ball skills. They'll face formidable foes in San Francisco's secondary, however: The Niners had the league's fourth-stingiest pass defense, allowing 200.2 yards per game, and only the Seattle Seahawks gave up fewer points.
Whereas Seahawks cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner have gotten a great deal of attention in 2012, the 49ers' tandem has been decidedly low-key.
Rogers, a Pro Bowl selection who picked six passes in 2011, was named an alternate this year after making just one interception (of a Tom Brady pass in the Niners' 41-34 upset of the New England Patriots last month, one he returned 63 yards). Brown, a sixth-year player from Texas, had 14 passes defensed but only two interceptions for a defensive unit that had just 14 picks overall.
"The thing about corners is, you can get beat [a lot], but at the end of the season if you have six or seven picks — no matter how they come — you're [considered] one of the best corners," Rogers said. "It's just the nature of our game; you're not going to get talked about until you get picks.
"Some games I may have gotten one or two balls thrown my way — the first time we played Green Bay, I think I got two or three. The guys in Seattle, they talk. It brings them attention. I like them. They are good corners. But our stats speak for themselves. We are one of the pass defenses in the league. And we're still playing."
Said Brown: "I mean, the numbers don't lie. I think everybody in our secondary is doing a very good job of covering guys up and making plays on the ball. A lot of people might try to overlook us because we don't have a lot of picks, but we're definitely not letting guys get over our head or letting guys catch a lot of balls. And a lot of teams haven't gotten as far as we've gotten."
If Brown and Rogers hope to advance to their second consecutive NFC championship game — and to the franchise's first Super Bowl in 18 years — they'll have to keep Rodgers from having the type of monster game he did two years ago in the Pack's divisional-round thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons. And though they may have messed with his rhythm back in September, neither player is under any illusion that scheme alone will subdue this highly motivated, highly skilled passer.
"There might be times when he doesn't understand or doesn't read things right," Brown said. "But he finds a way to make adjustments, like all great quarterbacks do. Aaron can hit a hot streak at any given moment, and it can last for a quarter, two quarters or anything past that. So, going against a guy like that, you just want to knock those receivers off their timing routes and try to get up in their heads — and just try to make it harder for those guys to get open, and make his reads a lot more difficult."
With his quick release, scholarly grasp of defenses and uncanny accuracy, Rodgers will be armed and dangerous come Saturday night in the stadium that many once thought would be his football home. Stopping him won't be easy, but Rogers and Brown certainly aren't backing down from the challenge.
"I don't think there's any secret," Rogers said. "There's nothing he hasn't seen. And it boils down to winning our one-on-one matchups, trying to get him to make throws that we can make plays on. It's a challenge. And it's going to be a real tense game."
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