Packers' blitz-savvy Rodgers will be a challenge for Eagles

Eagles' Juqua Parker pulls down Packers' Aaron Rodgers in Week 1; Birds hope for similar results Sunday.
Eagles' Juqua Parker pulls down Packers' Aaron Rodgers in Week 1; Birds hope for similar results Sunday.
Posted: January 05, 2011

ROCK, MEET hard place. Sean McDermott, meet Aaron Rodgers.

Actually, the Eagles' defensive coordinator already is very familiar with Rodgers. McDermott saw the Packers quarterback up close and personal in Week 1 and has seen him in his nightmares the last few days since learning the identity of the Eagles' first-round playoff opponent.

I mean, where are Stephen McGee, Alex Smith and Shaun Hill when you really need them?

McDermott's unit actually did a very good job against Rodgers in Week 1, holding him to some pretty pedestrian numbers in a 27-20 Eagles loss.

His 73.1 passer rating was his second lowest of the season, if you don't include his early exit against Detroit last month with a concussion. It was one of only three games in which he threw multiple interceptions. Had his third-lowest yards-per-attempt average (6.06) and fourth-lowest completion percentage (.613).

But that was Week 1, when McDermott had a deep, fresh supply of defensive linemen and a healthy secondary and linebacking corps with which to attack Rodgers.

Now, nearly 4 months later, he has neither. The Eagles have a puny 15 sacks in their last eight games. A defensive line that registered 19 sacks and 53 quarterback hurries in the first eight games has only 12 and 29 in the last eight. The go-to sacker, right end Trent Cole, has been shut out in five of his last seven starts. Right end Juqua Parker is playing way too many snaps and has only two sacks and one hurry in his last seven starts.

McDermott's season-opening starting right corner (Ellis Hobbs), free safety (Nate Allen) and middle linebacker (Stewart Bradley) all are on the shelf with injuries. His other starting corner, Asante Samuel, is playing on one good leg.

McDermott knows he must find a way to pressure Rodgers on Sunday or he'll pick his defense apart. But how?

He can't count on his front four to get in Rodgers' face, and blitzing him has been a losing proposition for just about every team that has tried it.

Rodgers has a league-best 107.4 passer rating against the blitz this season. Defenses have sent extra rushers after him on 166 dropbacks. He has completed 66.5 percent of his passes, thrown 11 touchdowns and four interceptions and been sacked only eight times against the blitz.

By comparison, the Eagles' Michael Vick has a 55 percent completion rate against the blitz and has been sacked 19 times, which is the second most in the league to the Bears' Jay Cutler.

"Rodgers is terrific at the line of scrimmage," said NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell, supervising producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup" show. "He's right up there with [Tom] Brady and [Drew] Brees and [Peyton] Manning as far as presnap recognition and being able to check protections and move [running] backs.

"The Packers attack against the blitz. They've got four quality wideouts. They go vertical very often. [Rodgers] will set the protection and know that it's one-on-one on the outside, and they attack.

"The other thing that helps him against the blitz is that he's got the quickest, most compact delivery in the league."

The Eagles are 21st in the league in points allowed this season. They've given up 377 points, which is the second most by the club in the last 23 years (they allowed 388 in 2005).

McDermott, 36, has taken a lot of heat for his unit's poor play. That probably would have been the case anyway, but the fact he is following one of the best defensive coordinators in the history of the game hasn't helped.

Every time something goes wrong, every time the Eagles give up another third-and-long completion or another red-zone touchdown, people openly wonder, WWJD? What Would Jim Do?

Truth is, probably not much that McDermott isn't doing. Johnson seldom had to rely on as many newbies at key positions as McDermott is right now. You can draw up the most clever blitzes in the world, but if you don't have the players capable of executing them, it doesn't mean a thing.

"I come from Jim Johnson's system," McDermott said last week. "With so many new players, you can't just say, 'Hey, we've always run this blitz, [run] this blitz,' because those players don't know those blitzes. There's a period of acclimation that comes into play, so you want to get the players as comfortable as possible.

"And the execution, it's great to come up with all of these different schemes and everything. But what can these players execute? A lot of these players are in their first games in the NFL. If you had veteran players, you can bank on them being comfortable in an NFL game, and then they can execute whatever you draw up.

"That's part of the overall equation you take into the game plan, and say, 'OK, realistically, what can I expect these guys to handle?' "

Asked that very question Sunday after the Eagles' meaningless loss to the Cowboys, McDermott backed off his earlier comments a bit.

"Anything I bring to the table, they're ready and willing to learn and execute," he said. "This week, we're going to have a couple of things in."

McDermott found himself in a very similar blitz-or-don't-blitz dilemma going into the playoffs last year. His unit had only 17 sacks in the last eight games of 2009. Unable to count on his front four to get pressure on the Cowboys' Tony Romo, he tried to attack him with a heavy dose of blitzes in their playoff meeting. Romo made mincemeat of those blitzes, completing 23 of 35 passes for 244 yards, two TDs and no interceptions.

"It's a balancing act," strong safety Quintin Mikell said. "You don't want to go out there and overblitz, because it's not very smart. At the same time, you can't let a quarterback, especially one as good as Aaron Rodgers, have all day.

"As a secondary, we have to make Sean comfortable with [blitzing]. That means we have to put in the work and do the little things right so that he feels we're ready to go. When he does call our number, if we have a blitz on, you've got to get there. And if we have to cover for an extra half a second, you gotta do it. At the end of the day, we've got to make it easier on [McDermott]."

And harder on Aaron Rodgers. *

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