No disrespect to the future Hall-of-Famer they’re facing Sunday, but the Carolina Panthers aren’t getting all worked up about the return of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Part of their indifference is rooted in the fact that they’ve been preparing for this scenario since Rodgers’ recovery timetable from collarbone surgery was first laid out two months ago.
Some of it is related to Ron Rivera’s belief that the Packers (7-6) have been running most of the same offensive plays under backup Brett Hundley as they will with Rodgers this week at Bank of America Stadium.
But most of it is just confidence in a defense that’s been ranked among the league’s top five for all but one week this season.
“Not to slight him at all,” Panthers safety Colin Jones said of Rodgers. “We’re just confident with how we played last week and we want to keep the momentum going.”
The Panthers (9-4) overwhelmed the Vikings’ Case Keenum last week, sacking his six times and intercepting him twice in a 31-24 victory. And while Keenum has played exceptionally this season, it’s one year.
Rodgers has been one of the premiere quarterbacks over the past decade, winning two MVP awards and a Super Bowl ring while becoming the only quarterback in NFL history to post a 100-plus passer rating in six consecutive seasons (2009-14).
“He’s definitely special, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Can make every throw. And when you rush you’ve got to be smart because he can make you miss,” said Panthers nickel back Captain Munnerlyn, who faced Rodgers twice a year during his three seasons in Minnesota.
“The man is one of the best to do it, so we’ve got to be on our P’s and Q’s,” Munnerlyn added. “We’ve got to be ready to roll.”
Rodgers was injured in a Week 6 loss to the Vikings when linebacker Anthony Barr drove him to the ground after Rodgers released a pass. Rodgers had surgery and was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return, which meant he had to sit out a minimum of eight weeks.
As long as the Packers stayed in playoff contention, Rodgers planned to be back by this week – which he confirmed late Tuesday night with an Instagram post saying he’d been cleared.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he wasn’t surprised by Rodgers’ recovery, despite the screws and metal plate in his right collarbone.
“In Aaron’s case you’re never surprised. I don’t ever bet against him,” McCarthy told Charlotte reporters in a conference call Wednesday. “Just the way he attacked it and just the whole rehab aspect. He couldn’t do any more than you possibly could as far as clearing each threshold that you have to to come back.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera also wasn’t surprised, and told his players he didn’t want the Rodgers storyline to become a distraction.
“To us it shouldn’t be a big deal. They said he was going to be back for our game. That’s what we expected,” Rivera said. “I don’t want our guys getting caught up in it. I want our guys focusing on getting prepared.”
A history of success
Rodgers has played well against the Panthers in recent years. He completed 19 of 22 passes for 255 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions, in leading the Packers to a 38-17 victory in Green Bay in 2014.
The following year the Panthers jumped out to a big lead over the Packers, forcing Rodgers to attempt 48 passes. He completed 25 of them for 369 yards and four touchdowns.
But he also was sacked five times and intercepted once – by linebacker Thomas Davis, who made a leaping grab inside the Panthers’ 5 with about two minutes left to preserve a 37-29 victory.
This is not the first time the Panthers have faced a high-profile quarterback returning from a broken collarbone in a big game.
Former Cowboys QB Tony Romo re-injured his collarbone when Davis hit him during the Panthers’ Thanksgiving Day victory in 2015.
Panthers defenders say they’re not going to try to hurt Rodgers, but they’re also aware of how he was injured in the first place.
“I wouldn’t say go into the game looking to hurt nobody. That’s never the deal,” defensive tackle Vernon Butler said. “But if we get to him, we’ll put a nice lick on him. No doubt.”
Getting hands on Rodgers
Green Bay quarterbacks have taken a lot of licks this year.
Rodgers was sacked 19 times in five games, and the protection was no better for Hundley. The Packers have allowed 43 sacks, third-most in the league behind only Indianapolis (52) and Arizona (44).
Meanwhile, Carolina is tied for the third in the league with 40 sacks, with edge rushers Julius Peppers and Mario Addison leading the charge with 9.5 each.
“Our front seven, they’re going to get after no matter who it is going across from them,” cornerback Daryl Worley said.
That includes Butler, the first-round draft pick from 2016 who has never faced Rodgers.
Growing up in Mississippi, Butler says he was more of a fan of Brett Favre, the pride of Hattiesburg, Miss.
But Butler had high praise for Rodgers, too.
“I know he’s a pretty good – it ain’t no pretty good, he’s a damn good quarterback,” Butler said. “So for me to get my hands on him, that’d be pretty special.”