GREEN BAY, Wis. -- This wouldn’t be the first time someone thinks they have found the so-called blueprint to stop quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
In fact, what the New Orleans Saints did in Sunday's 38-3 rout -- one of the most shocking season openers in Packers history -- wasn’t all that different from the strategy used by opponents at times during coach Matt LaFleur’s highly successful first two seasons.
In LaFleur’s first season, 2019, the Los Angeles Chargers (a 5-11 team) surprisingly shut down Rodgers & Co. with a relatively simple plan: Don’t blitz.
To be sure, it takes a certain defensive talent to pull it off -- one that ideally can get pressure on Rodgers with four-man rushes and leave everyone else in coverage. The Packers' 26-7 record over the past two-plus seasons -- and Rodgers' MVP season last year -- are proof enough that they're hard to stop.
While what happened against the Saints looked troubling to the Packers, it’s worth wondering two things: Can teams that ordinarily rely on pressure packages ditch that when playing the Packers, and how many teams actually have the personnel to pull it off?
“We gotta go back to the drawing board a little bit and figure out, because this'll be -- I don't know if everybody's gonna do this, and coordinators like to run their stuff -- but this'll be the old blueprint starting the season on the Packers,” Rodgers said after the game.
Rodgers has often scoffed at the “blueprint” question before, so it’s possible he was being facetious in his postgame comment, but given how Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen reversed his plan from last year’s 37-30 loss to the Packers in which Rodgers carved them up even with top receiver Davante Adams out with an hamstring injury, it’s something to consider.
In last year’s meeting, Allen blitzed Rodgers -- sending five or more defenders -- on 14 of his dropbacks, and Rodgers thrived. He completed 9 of 13 passes with two touchdowns against Saints blitzes, which resulted in one sack.
On Sunday, Allen sent five or more twice, instead opting to devote more manpower to coverage. Even though Rodgers had time to throw and was considered under duress three times, he never found a rhythm, going 15-of-28 passing for 133 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
That was how the Chargers slowed down Rodgers in 2019. They blitzed him on just one of his 39 dropbacks. That 2.6% blitz rate remains the lowest rate Rodgers has faced in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Sunday’s rate of 6.9% by the Saints is the fifth lowest Rodgers has ever faced.
Translating that plan into layman’s terms, the Saints essentially dared the Packers to run the ball. While myriad factors contributed to the Packers’ lack of run attempts -- an offensive line with two rookie starters and an early deficit chief among them -- LaFleur took the blame for not getting more done on the ground.
“We just didn’t have that many snaps in the first half, and then once we came out, we were down,” said running back Aaron Jones, who rushed just five times for 9 yards. “I think that put us in the passing game, and after that we were down even more, so we had to go into two-minute mode. Not a lot of running the ball in two-minute mode.”
But LaFleur on Monday said there were indeed opportunities to run more often in the first half before the game got out of hand. In all, the Packers rushed 15 times for just 43 yards.
“When a team’s going to play that much two-shell [coverage], you’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Rodgers said. “And we didn’t run it that effectively. I think we came in thinking they were going to pressure a bunch like they did last time.”
Since LaFleur has taken over, Rodgers has mentioned more than once that teams have gone against their trends and have tried to defend the Packers differently than they do the majority of the time.
“Hopefully, we'll see it a little more because we'll have it figured out by next week," Rodgers said of a team that might mimic the Saints' approach.
Whether the Detroit Lions try something similar on Monday Night Football against the Packers remains to be seen, but it happened against the Saints, and the Packers had no counter for it.
“That’s the one thing that we have to do as a staff is making sure that we have a great plan for and anticipate and try to stay ahead of [opponents] really in all three phases,” LaFleur said Monday after reviewing the film. “You’re trying to always stay one step ahead of the opposition so that things like yesterday don’t happen.”