JayRod: Scrambling to new heights

Jay Cutler, left, and Aaron Rodgers have both rushed for more than 200 yards this season, ranking them among the NFL's top rushing quarterbacks. US Presswire

You can probably guess who leads NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards.

Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick stands atop that list.

If your horizons extend beyond the NFC North, you might know that Josh Freeman of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranks second.

But unless you cheated and looked at the chart, you might not have realized that the next two players both play in this division. With three quarters of the season in the books, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers and Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler are the third- and fourth-most proficient quarterbacks on their feet this season, respectively. They are converting key first downs via scrambles and, in the case of Rodgers, capitalizing on play calls designed specifically for him to run.

Longtime observers know that both quarterbacks have displayed nimble feet and been productive scramblers throughout their careers. However, I think we can agree that the dynamic has shifted to a higher and more critical level this season. As both players approach their career highs in rushing yards, they have assumed additional roles in their offenses. Scrambles are no longer a bonus or a measure of last resort, but instead part of the flow in each scheme -- especially in Rodgers' case.

"If I'm moving and I feel like I can get us a positive gain, I'm going to take off," Rodgers said recently.

It sounds simple, but history shows it doesn't happen very often at this rate. Rodgers is on pace for 378 rushing yards this season. That total has been surpassed by 16 NFL quarterbacks over the 22 full seasons since the NFL moved to a 16-game season in 1978. (Hat tip to pro-football-reference.com's user-friendly database.)

Defenses continue to be surprised by Rodgers' speed and nose for the first-down marker, an oversight Rodgers clearly relishes. But it's one thing to scramble away from pressure. It's quite another to call designed runs or build in run options to pass plays, both of which Packers coach Mike McCarthy has done for Rodgers this season.

Two weeks ago against the Atlanta Falcons, for example, the Packers called four designed runs for Rodgers, based on ESPN Stats & Information analysis. Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, Rodgers converted a third-and-5 situation in the fourth quarter by reading two keys that called for him to run.

When you watch the play, you see the 49ers with six men on the line of scrimmage. At the snap, linebacker Takeo Spikes ran with tailback John Kuhn and linebacker Patrick Willis stayed with tight end Andrew Quarless.

Those moves revealed a man-to-man defense, meaning the other five 49ers defenders would be chasing receivers with their backs to the line of scrimmage. Recognizing that dynamic, Rodgers immediately took off and sprinted 11 yards untouched downfield to convert the third down.

"That's part of the way he is trained," McCarthy said. "That's part of the way he utilizes his athletic ability. I think he has been very smart with his scrambling. The one big third down where they played two-man, he recognized it right away and took off. ... So he is not out there to run the football, but I think he has been selective and smart with it."

Overall, Rodgers has converted 18 first downs by running this season -- almost as many as running backs Brandon Jackson (19) and Kuhn (19). There have been a number of occasions this season, most notably against the Falcons and in Week 3 against the Bears, when Rodgers has been the Packers' best option in short-yardage situations.

There is some risk in exposing a Pro Bowl quarterback to open-field contact, but it's been a necessity this season given the state of the Packers' running game. Rodgers took a particularly rough shot near the sideline against the Dallas Cowboys, but since then, McCarthy said, Rodgers has made better decisions to slide and overall is "much smarter running the football."

The same can't always be said for Cutler, who admittedly isn't much of a slider. At 233 pounds, Cutler prefers to lower his shoulder to squeeze out a few more yards. He's taken a few brutal shots as a result, most notably this past Sunday from Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, but to this point has emerged unscathed.

"It's December," Cutler said after Sunday's game. "We're playing well. We've got to keep it going. I've never really slid a lot in my career. If we're in the middle of the field, I might get down. But I'm trying to pick up third downs just like everyone else and I'm going to try to do whatever it takes."

When you subtract kneel-downs, which technically count as running plays, Cutler has converted a first down on 12 of his 26 actual runs this season, according to the Bears. For me, none was more impressive than his 16-yard run last month against the Miami Dolphins on third-and-16 -- a play that demonstrated both his speed and footwork as he tiptoed to stay in bounds at the marker.

There have been and will be many NFL quarterbacks who are athletic enough to move out of the pocket and avoid losing yardage. But relatively rare is the quarterback who can be counted on for routinely positive plays via the ground. As the playoffs approach, and first downs are at a premium, the Packers and Bears can rest assured that they have one.