COMMENTARY | Aaron Rodgers came to the line and saw something he hasn't seen much this season: a single deep safety. A subtle hand-motion to his right and Rodgers knew it was all over for the New York Giants defense, at least on that play.
A quick drop, pump and throw. Jordy Nelson was all by himself streaking down the sideline. Touchdown.
Sometimes, football really is that easy. Ask the Texans. They found out how deadly the Green Bay Packers' offense is if you're going to try and face them in man coverage without dual safeties back. Six touchdowns and a butt-whipping on national television is a pretty good reminder just how potent this offense can be.
But something is different about this year than last. Those play-action deep throws to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson aren't there this season when they were wide-open last season. Even with a better running game the last two weeks, the Packers haven't been able to generate big plays off their run fakes.
More than that though, inconsistent pass protection has prevented the Packers from getting to some of their deeper throws. Much of what Green Bay does on offense is predicated on route combinations. One receiver is meant to draw coverage by both the corner and the safety, leaving another receiver running one-on-one. That takes time to develop and if there's one thing Rodgers hasn't had this season, it's time to throw.
Teams who have been successful against Green Bay can get pressure with their front four and stop the run with their front seven. Instead of blitzing on third down, they drop seven or eight defenders, flood the zones and force Rodgers to either throw into coverage or buy time.
Luckily for the Packers, Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game at sliding, escaping and finding a receiver down the field.
But these two deep safety looks, particularly in zone coverage, have created something of a problem for the Packers in a different way. Green Bay hasn't been able to go to any kind of rhythm passing game. You don't see three-step drops and Rodgers seems almost afraid to throw to the middle of the field.
Gone from this offense, thanks to the cover 2 defenses, is the slant pass which has been a staple in Green Bay since before Rodgers was under center. Most of the quick reads in this offense are on deep throws when they get man coverage, or on hot reads.
Rodgers addressed this issue about the lack of quick passes, particularly the slant, on his weekly radio show. "The combination of the slant and flat pattern is not a great cover 2 play. That's the main thing," Rodgers explained.
"If they're (in) zone coverage, you have a guy in the slant hole and you have a guy who can cover the flat. The corner can cover the flat and the outside 'backer and cover the slant."
Linebackers have fooled Rodgers a number of times with their zone drops in the middle of the field. Novorro Bowman got a pick in Week 1 when Rodgers tried to hit Greg Jennings up the seam. In Week 11 against the New York Giants, Corey Webster jumped a route to Randall Cobb in the middle of the field.
Rodgers has thrown three picks on deep balls down the middle and another on a fade route where he under-threw Jordy Nelson and Patrick Robinson made a great play. It's not as if the Packers aren't trying to attack the middle of the field.
Mike McCarthy and the offensive coaches are seeing the openings thanks to how deep opposing defenses are playing their safeties. Green Bay has seized that opportunity the last two weeks to run the football and has done so with considerable success. In-breaking routes have always been a staple in the Packers offense and some of the biggest plays of Rodgers' career have been on zone beaters. Greg Jennings' famous third down conversion where Rodgers fit the throw into a keyhole in the Super Bowl comes to mind.
However, many of these deep in-cuts take time to develop. Linebackers are getting deep drops in the middle of the field to cut the angle off as well. It's why you've seen the Packers go to some of these sweep bubble screens where they'll throw to Cobb and have a receiver and tight end block on the perimeter. Teams are in such a hurry to drop into their zones that you can beat them with underneath routes, particularly if you get blockers out early.
New England showed how deadly underneath routes can be on Monday against the Texans and beat Houston to death with crossing patterns to Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. Things might have been worse for the Texans if Wes Welker hadn't dropped so many passes.
The difference for Green Bay is New England's offensive line is a significantly better pass-blocking unit and no one in the NFL gets more time to the throw the ball than Tom Brady. Houston also continued to play man coverage and Rodgers didn't have much trouble with the Texans defense either.
Greg Jennings has long been the go-to receiver for Rodgers in the middle of the field and you can see the flashes of Randall Cobb's ability in space as well. Getting them both healthy could open up more opportunities in the open spaces inside the hash marks.
An improving chemistry between Rodgers and tight end Jermichael Finley in recent weeks will also be a boost as athletic tight ends in the seam have always been the recipe for beating cover 2.
Despite the lack of big plays - and to be fair, the Packers have hit on a number of them this season when the coverage was right - Green Bay is in a position to clinch the division this weekend with a win. They've manufactured offense and with a healthy stable of receivers heading into the post-season you can bet McCarthy and Rodgers will find ways to beat cover 2.
It seems only fitting that the Packers have a chance to clinch against the Chicago Bears, the team who has been the most successful cover 2 team in the league for almost a decade.
Peter Bukowski is a Wisconsin transplant living in New York and has been covering sports since 2007. He is an award-winning television and newspaper reporter. Follow him on Twitter @BukoTime
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