Week 15 Recap: Bills Defense Stymies Packers

The Bills discovered a blue print for stopping Aaron Rodgers; catch him on a day when he is throwing the ball very inaccurately. It’s that easy. Mix in some good coverage, a decent pass rush, and some turnovers, and you can stop the Packers. Why didn’t every other team think of that?

This might upset some Bills fans out there, but what happened on Sunday in Buffalo was an aberration. This is to take nothing away from the Bills. They have a very good defense and executed extremely well. But there was no secret formula that the Bills uncovered to stop Green Bay’s offense.

Aaron Rodgers:
Not only was this an uncharacteristically inaccurate game for Rodgers, it was his worst since becoming the starter in 2008. He completed just 40.5% of his passes (career low) and finished with a 34.3 passer rating (also a career low). Rodgers was off all day. He threw two interceptions and should have had another on a simple “smoke” screen pass that was not only thrown inaccurately, but also shouldn’t have even been thrown in the first place.

Rodgers missed several throws physically on Sunday. On his first interception, a deep cross to Randall Cobb, Rodgers put the ball just a bit behind Cobb, enabling safety Bacarri Rambo to pick it off. While this was, on one hand, a tremendous play by Rambo, a better throw would have given the Packers a big play and avoided a turnover. On a side note, the Bills blew the coverage on the other side of the field. Cornerback Corey Graham sat on Jordy Nelson’s route thinking he had help over the top. He didn’t. It was a blown coverage that Rodgers did not see because he had Cobb open.

The big drop of the day came two offensive plays later. Jordy Nelson ran a Sluggo route (slant-and-go). Both the corner and safety to that side jumped the slant, allowing Nelson to get behind them with nothing in front of him but the end zone. Rodgers delivered a perfect ball and Nelson just dropped it. It would have been a 94-yard touchdown pass.

There were a few other drops on Sunday, as well. A 3rd down drop in the first quarter by tight end Andrew Quarless comes to mind. So does Rodgers’ 2nd interception, a pass which went through the hands of Jarrett Boykin, hit him in the facemask, and popped up into the air. An inaccurate quarterback coupled with receivers dropping passes will often lead to performances like we saw on Sunday.

The Bills played a lot of zone concepts on Sunday, but they matched up well within these concepts. They often locked slot receivers. Underneath defenders didn’t just drop to the zones that they were told to go to in practice regardless of where receivers were running their routes. Instead, they were aware of route combinations, formations, and alignments. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore had a tremendous game. He played to his sideline help and safety help when the coverage called for it. When asked to lock up in 1-on-1 situations, he did so successfully.

Additionally, on 24 of 46 called passes (including Rodgers scrambles), the Bills played with a Cover-2 safety on at least one side of the field, as shown below.

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

On 21 of those 24 snaps, a 2-deep safety aligned on Cobb’s side. Rodgers only threw his way on 4 of these snaps – all incompletions. On 20 of 24 snaps, a 2-deep safety was aligned on Jordy Nelson’s side. Rodgers only threw Nelson’s way on 3 of these 20 plays (1-3, 20 yds). The underneath coverage in these situations was allowed to sit on shorter routes and not worry as much about getting beat over the top because of their safety help. Against this coverage, Rodgers avoided his two best receivers for most of the day, instead opting to find 1-on-1 matchups elsewhere.

You couldn’t say that this is a problem with Rodgers. He puts the ball where the coverage dictates. This is, by and large, how quarterbacks are supposed to play the position. Rodgers has done this plenty in 2014. In Week 1, for instance, he stayed away from Richard Sherman because he didn’t like his matchups to Sherman’s side of the field. Against New England a few weeks ago, Rodgers stayed away from Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, instead going after the Patriots’ 3rd and 4th best cover defenders. Against the Bills, Rodgers stayed away from double-coverage. Again, this is, in many ways, how the position is supposed to be played.

However, this aspect of Sunday’s game would be the only valid takeaway for other defenses around the league when game-planning for the Packers. They can potentially dictate who Rodgers won’t throw the ball to, and that’s better than nothing. However, it’s only a small part of the battle because Rodgers is so great at making throws late in the play after the defense has won early in the down.

Final Thoughts:
The Bills pass rush was not a huge tangible factor on Sunday. Rodgers didn’t take a beating. He was sacked only once, on the final offensive play of the game. He didn’t take many hits or get driven into the ground. In fact he had a clean pocket on several throws. The bigger issue was that the Packers clearly looked to be trying to get rid of the ball early in order to negate the rush. Many of Rodgers’ big plays come when he buys time and finds receivers late downfield. He didn’t have any such plays against the Bills. Still, Rodgers generally doesn’t need the improvisational plays to succeed.

Ultimately, Rodgers just had a bad day throwing the ball, similar to a Cy Young pitcher who gets shellacked once a year because he can’t get a feel for his curveball that night. This type of thing happens to quarterbacks. It happened to Rodgers on Sunday, and it was coupled with the opponent being very good on defense. There really shouldn’t be any reason for concern in Green Bay.

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