GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Go ahead and try to pressure Aaron Rodgers. He dares you.
Not with his words. He would never say something so audacious. He doesn’t have to -- not with all the video and statistical evidence an opposing defensive coordinator would ever need. Whether it’s a blitz or just a normal four-man pass rush, little rattles the Green Bay Packers' two-time MVP quarterback.
He can juke an oncoming pass-rusher, as he did to Atlanta’s Kroy Biermann last season at Lambeau Field, where Rodgers sidestepped the Falcons linebacker and fired a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson like it was a schoolyard game.
“I don’t know if there’s anybody that moves as well in the pocket [and] has a feel for where the rush is coming from,” Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “He’s athletic as heck, too. I’m thinking back to the Atlanta game last year where Biermann had him dead to rights in the pocket, and he didn’t even touch him.”
Or Rodgers, thanks to his mid-week film study, can tell that Chargers cornerback Patrick Robinson is going to blitz as he did in the Packers' most recent game and find a way to flip a shovel pass to Jeff Janis for a 33-yard gain.
“He knew it was coming and baited him and baited him and stepped up,” Van Pelt said. “That’s just years of practice, being comfortable in the pocket. I don’t know if there’s many better than him.”
What would most quarterbacks do in that situation?
"I would’ve probably panicked and come up and tried to throw it to the slot where it was hot," said Van Pelt, a nine-year NFL backup with the Buffalo Bills.
Rodgers will try to work more of his magic against the NFL’s best pass rush on Sunday night in Denver. The Broncos lead the NFL with 26 sacks. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips blitzes on 37.7 percent of his opponents’ dropbacks, a rate that ranks eighth in the NFL according to ESPN Stats & Information.
History says it won’t work.
Rodgers led the NFL last season with a passer rating of 130.4 against the blitz. Since 2008, his first year as a starter, he has the highest passer rating (110.5) against the blitz and the most touchdowns (78), according to Stats LLC.
Rodgers’ production against the blitz is down slightly this season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he ranks just sixth in the league in completion percentage (65.4) against the blitz and tied for eighth in touchdown passes (five) against it.
It might look like chaos when teams blitz Rodgers, but there’s a method to how he handles it.
“Just depends on whether you've got it picked up or not,” Rodgers said this week. “A lot of blitzes, you can pick up with a protection adjustment, or maybe pick up with the protection you've got called and then you throw in, a lot of times they'll throw in that five-man pressure as a blitz.
“When you're playing a team like the Broncos, their main blitz, if you will, is just a five-man pressure because they want to bring their interior guys, and their two outside great rushers. It's about blocking those guys up, when they bring some exotic stuff, it's about having a place to go with the football and making sure you picked it up.”
It starts, according to Packers coach Mike McCarthy, with Rodgers’ ability to sense pressure is coming before it happens.
“The first part is the anticipation and awareness,” McCarthy said. “Because if you don't have that, you can have the quickest feet and the quickest release in the world and you're going to get hit harder than you should. I would say that's probably the first part.”
The hours and hours of individual footwork drills that McCarthy and his staff teach year after year in their offseason quarterback school play a part, too.
“It's something that's always been taught as far as I've known the quarterback position,” said McCarty, a longtime quarterbacks coach. “Not only dealing with pressure, but where it's coming from and how it affects your footwork."