Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera offered a scary thought for his defense on Thursday.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the former Super Bowl MVP, NFL MVP and arguably the best quarterback in the league right now, is just as proficient inside the pocket as outside of it.
That’s who the Panthers have to stop Sunday at Lambeau Field, and no one on Carolina’s defense expects it to be easy.
“One of the things he does really well is his release is so fast,” middle linebacker and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly said. “It’s not one of those things where he’s got a big windup. He knows where he’s going with the ball and it’s gone. You turn your head, you’ve blinked and it’s gone.”
Rodgers possesses a unique blend of mobility, arm strength, timing and football instincts that has put him in the elite category among NFL quarterbacks.
On paper, Rodgers versus Carolina’s secondary looks like one of the biggest mismatches of the Week 7. Rodgers has a passer rating of 111.4, second in the NFL, along with a 64.6 completion percentage, 15 touchdowns and one interception. Meanwhile, the Panthers own the 20th-rated passing defense.
According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks throwing to receivers covered by Panthers cornerbacks Melvin White and Antoine Cason enjoy a 126.1 and 113.1 passer ratings, respectively. That’s good for sixth- and 10th-worst in the NFL for cornerbacks who have been throw at 20 times or more.
“His release is excellent, and he’s one of those guys that I feel if we let him get going early, it’ll be a big day,” said cornerback Josh Norman, who could start in place of White this week. “So just keying on what he likes to do, guys he likes like Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. We’ll try to get our guys on him as much as we possibly can and limit him throwing at us.”
Nelson has become Rodgers’ top target. He leads the NFL in receiving yards with 632 and already has five touchdowns. Norman alluded to stopping Nelson’s yards after catch, which at 192 yards ranks fifth among all receivers.
The story for this year’s Panthers’ secondary is the same as it was last year. The front seven must create enough pressure to throw off the quarterback’s timing and force mistakes.
One tough decision facing Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott this week is when to send Kuechly on a blitz. While McDermott said Kuechly has been more effective at blitzing this season than last year, the linebacker has one sack – in Week 1 at Tampa Bay – and zero quarterback pressures.
Sending Kuechly toward the quarterback could expose the middle of the field for a vulnerable Panthers’ defense.
“You’ve got to weigh the cost-benefit of, he’s into the line of scrimmage, a chance to hit the quarterback, but his instincts for him to flow to the football are lost,” McDermott said.
A consistent pass rush from Carolina’s front four is imperative. Green Bay has allowed 15 sacks, which is tied for seventh-best in the league.
While Rodgers doesn’t have the rushing totals of Cam Newton, Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick, his mobility can’t be denied. He scrambled five times for 27 yards against the Dolphins last week, and four of those scrambles came when a defensive end let him outside their containment.
Rivera and defensive line coach Eric Washington have preached to the defensive ends about keeping Rodgers on their inside shoulder so he doesn’t break outside and make a play like he did in the third quarter last week.
On third-and-goal from the 5, Rodgers took advantage of left defensive end Cameron Wake losing containment. He sidestepped Wake, then moved to his right to find Cobb in the end zone for a touchdown.
“That’s a must,” defensive end Mario Addison said. “We’ve got to push the pocket and keep him in. He’s very mobile. When you’re thinking he’s going to throw the ball and he sees it open, he’ll take off running. We’ve got to watch for that.”
Sunday will be one of the defense’s biggest tests this season, but Norman isn’t backing own.
“You want to be with the best. You want to see how you match up,” Norman said. “You don’t want no slap guy going around and playing off him and say, ‘Oh I got all these interceptions and big plays off him,’ but what has he done? When you go against the best you want to match yourself at that level.”