No matter how great a quarterback may be, every one of them has his own personal Kryptonite. For Tom Brady, it’s always been pressure right up the middle. For Aaron Rodgers, at least in 2020, it was coverage in which he faced two deep safeties. This trend not only affected Rodgers’ efficiency and explosiveness; it also drastically affected his best receiver — and perhaps the best receiver in the NFL today. Per Sports Info Solutions, when presented with single-high coverage in 2020 (Cover-1, Cover-3), Davante Adams caught 81 of 99 targets for 971 yards, 574 air yards, a league-high 13 touchdowns, and a receiver rating of 139.8. Against any manner of two-safety coverage (Cover-2, 2-Man, Cover-4, Cover-6, Tampa-2), Adams caught 28 of 42 targets for 335 yards, 238 air yards, two touchdowns, and a receiver rating of 86.9.
The two-deep conundrum obviously started with Rodgers. Against single-safety coverage last season, Rodgers completed 205 of 299 yards for 2,496 yards, 1,346 air yards, 29 touchdowns, two interceptions, an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 9.3, and a passer rating of 123.5.
Against two-high coverage, he completed 121 of 188 passes for 1,734 yards, 1,035 air yards, nine touchdowns, four interceptions, an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 8.2, and a passer rating of 101.2.
So, that was the crucible Rodgers faced heading into the 2021 season. If you cover him single-high, he’ll destroy your day. If you counter with two-high, you at least have a chance. And if you can stop the Packers from running the ball effectively against two-high, you have more than a chance.
Interestingly enough, the difference in coverage didn’t really affect Rodgers’ ability to make big-time throws. Against single-high in 2020, Rodgers completed 18 passes on 41 attempts of 20 or more air yards for 631 yards, 502 air yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. He averaged 30.3 yards per throw. Against two-high, Rodgers completed 17 of 41 deep passes for 708 yards, 546 air yards, seven touchdowns, and one interception. Rodgers’ average throw depth against two-high coverage was 31.7.
The divide in efficiency per coverage showed up quite a bit more on throws of 10-19 air yards. Against single-high on such throws, Rodgers completed 33 of 58 passes for 634 yards, 440 air yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, an ANY/A of 12.3, and a passer rating of 114.0. Against two-high on those types of throws, Rodgers completed 18 of 33 passes for 333 yards, 263 air yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions, an ANY/A of 7.2, and a passer rating of 71.9.
On throws of 0-9 air yards? We’ll be brief. Against single-high, Rodgers threw 18 touchdowns to two interceptions. Against two-high? Zero and zero. There’s a lot of red zone noise in there, but still.
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What does this tell us? It may reveal that when Rodgers sees an open receiver downfield, regardless of the coverage, he’s going to use his peerless arm talent to make that throw. But when asked to operate a fully integrated passing game in the intermediate areas with two deep safeties, there’s a disconnect. You may find it unfathomable that a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer would be so betwixt and between with two-safety looks, but again, every quarterback has his Kryptonite. It also tells us that when teams are able to at least limit the damage Adams can do to coverage by bracketing him, Green Bay’s second- and third-level receivers aren’t quite up to the challenge. That’s been a burr in Rodgers’ side for a while now. Based on the numbers and tape, he might have a valid point.
Now, Rodgers was facing a Saints defense that played two-high on 274 opponent passing attempts in 2020, third-most in the league behind the Buccaneers and Browns. In two-high, the Saints allowed just six touchdowns to seven interceptions, and against throws of 10-19 air yards, they gave up just one of those touchdowns to three picks.
The past was prologue.
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The stage was set for a Very Bad Matchup for Rodgers and head coach/offensive shot-caller Matt LaFleur, and that’s exactly what happened. Rodgers completed 15 of 28 passes against New Orleans in Week 1 of the 2021 season for 133 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 36.8. It was his worst game since Week 6 of the 2020 season, when Todd Bowles’ lethal combination of two-deep coverage and multiple pressure packages spooked Rodgers as I have never seen him spooked before. The Buccaneers won that game, 38-10, and Rodgers completed 16 of 35 passes for 135 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 35.4. Sound familiar? It should. In that game, Rodgers faced two-high coverage on 12 of his dropbacks, completing four of 11 passes for 48 yards, 27 air yards, one of his two picks, and a passer rating of 12.7. And in Green Bay’s 24-16 Week 14 win against the Panthers, Rodgers completed 20 of 29 passes for 143 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, a and a passer rating of 91.6. These were the only two games last season in which Rodgers had a passer rating of 100.0, and in this case, the Panthers and first-year defensive coordinator Phil Snow threw things at Rodgers that Rodgers later called “strange.” https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2020/12/26/did-the-buccaneers-and-panthers-create-the-blueprint-to-contain-aaron-rodgers/ “It’s a lot of principles you see at the college level — the 3-3-5 stuff, very strange alignments,” Rodgers said, per Joe Person of The Athletic. “They played very soft in the secondary with a lot of two-high and even some, I don’t even know what you call it, but it’s like five guys are high. The pressure package, I felt like we picked up pretty good. It was more of the four-man rush when we didn’t have guys open that gave us problems.” The Panthers played 3-3-5 on 41% of their defensive snaps in that game, so that certainly was a thing. And though the Panthers played with a traditional two-high shell on just 24% of their defensive snaps, they schemed middle of the field closed coverage (MOFC) on 77% of their snaps. They also blitzed 43% of the time. What does this tell us? The Panthers spun from single-high to two-high a lot. The tape shows the same thing, as it did on Rodgers’ third sack of the day. Pre-snap, the Panthers have what could be an nine-man box, with a four-man front and defensive back Myles Hartsfield (No. 38), linebacker Shaq Thompson (No. 54), cornerback Juston Burris (No. 31), safety Jeremy Chinn (No. 21), and safety Tre Boston (No. 33) near the line to confuse everything. Cornerback Rasul Douglas is the only obvious defender outside the paint, which should give Rodgers an indicator that at least one safety is going to spin out. Pre-snap, Burris is already doing just that, flying back to cover the deep third. At the snap, Boston and Hartsfield drop into curl/flat responsibility, Thompson and Chinn move to hook/curl, and Douglas and Burris roll deep. Rodgers doesn’t have time to diagnose it, because the protection is an absolute mess, and the Panthers go into Shark Week mode.
Rodgers had to deal with the same idea on the interception he threw to cornerback Jamel Dean in the Tampa Bay game — spinning from single-high to two-deep. Dean turned that into a 32-yard pick-six.
The Buccaneers made the Packers wait to decipher which defensive linemen were standing up, and which had their hands on the ground. Bowles did a brilliant job from snap to snap switching this up, which made it very hard for Rodgers and his linemen to agree on protections. Rodgers was sacked five times and suffered 13 quarterback hits in this game, but it wasn’t just the pressure that was the problem — Rodgers was also confounded by dropping defenders and blitzing defenders from difficult angles. This caused Rodgers to doubt his short and intermediate reads as you will rarely see him do against static single-high stuff.
The Saints had a different plan this time.
(AP Foto/Butch Dill)
In Week 3 of the 2020 season against the Saints, Rodgers completed 21 of 32 passes for 283 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 124.9. But against two-high in that game, Rodgers completed just six of 10 passes for 155 yards, 98 air yards, no touchdowns, and a passer rating of 104.2. Not terrible, but it does play into the two-high story to a degree, and if you take out one big shot downfield, the numbers shrink pretty quickly. Green Bay’s most explosive play in that game, a 72-yard pass to Allen Lazard, came against two-high coverage. The Saints had a blitz look pre-snap that turned into straight pressure and seven defenders in coverage. But Rodgers had a clean pocket and time to scan the field, he had undoubtedly seen safeties Marcus Williams (No. 43) communicating with safety P.J. Williams (No. 26), and he saw Marcus Williams drop down, leaving P.J. Williams one-on-one with Lazard up top. With time, Rodgers was able to exploit the coverage, and the big play was there on the deep over.
That deep shot came two plays after the first play of the second half, when Rodgers tried to hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a similar deep concept. This time, Rodgers anticipated pressure, the Saints kept both safeties deep, and Rodgers threw an errant missile for the incompletion.
Per ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, the Saints entered the 2021 season with a very different plan for Rodgers than the 2020 version.
In last year’s meeting, [Saints defensive coordinator Dennis] 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.
That was one part of the equation. Another part was that Allen threw different coverage concepts at Rodgers, and this time, when Rodgers went YOLO, he paid for it more consistently.
Two interceptions told the story.
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Allen was brilliant at mixing pressure and coverage in this game. Rodgers’ first interception came with 9:41 left in the third quarter, and this was a blitz in the red zone with Williams as the “deep” safety. Here, it was pressure that altered Rodgers’ look, made him throw late to Davante Adams, and created the pick by third-round rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo.
As it turns out, there was a dual aspect to this defense, but it had nothing to do with two-high. Two-low, perhaps. “I don’t like to make excuses for interceptions,” Rodgers said Tuesday during his weekly appearance on the Pat McAfee Show. “There are some [expletive] ones, some ones you wish you had back, and there are ones that really aren’t your fault. That one was entirely due to the double nut shot I took. Go back and watch it! I stepped up in the pocket to throw across my body to Davante, who was running a shallow cross. It’s a ball I’ve thrown in practice before; I don’t feel bad about that throw. And right before I’m throwing it, I took a left clothesline, and somebody on the right, with kind of a right cross, double nut shot. I guess I’ve gotta overcome that and throw a better ball. That was a painful one — they got their money’s worth.” Yes, there is an element of truth to this. Pressure is bad enough. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1437907199892746242 The second interception, which ended the Packers’ next drive, came off a look that resembled what Rodgers was able to exploit in Week 3 of the previous season. But this time, while Allen called a defense that had Malcolm Jenkins coming down from two-high deep to help cover the intermediate middle, he also had slot defender Chauncey Gardner-Johnson following Valdes-Scantling all the way up the post, and Gardner-Johnson mirrored Valdes-Scantling perfectly in a battle of the hyphens.
“They were playing the backside safety there kinda low on the back side, and I thought Davante had the corner on the back side — staying with him and doubling Davante. I took my eyes off him, and he did a nice job getting back to the middle of the field, and I overthrew Marquez on that one.”
The flow of the game took away the Packers’ (possible) saving grace
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Beyond various route concepts, the best way to deal with a defense that’s playing a ton of two-high against you is to run the ball. In the 2020 season opener, the Texans tried this with the Chiefs to limit Patrick Mahomes’ explosive tendencies. This didn’t work for multiple reasons. https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/2020/09/10/chiefs-go-against-type-play-bully-ball-to-take-texans-defense-to-the-woodshed/ First, rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire gashed Houston’s light boxes for 138 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. Second, Mahomes is absolutely lethal against two-high coverage — last season, he completed 164 of 251 attempts for 2,057 yards, 1,273 air yards, a league-high 12 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a league-high passer rating of 131.6. Third, the Chiefs can put Travis Kelce on one side of the field and Tyreek Hill on the other, and all you can do with split safeties at that point is to wish them bon voyage. Fourth, Mahomes’ specific mobility outside the pocket breaks deep-third coverage in multiple ways. Rodgers, who isn’t as mobile as Mahomes (though he’s incredibly effective when rolling out of pressure), and doesn’t have a Travis Kelce to pair with Davante Adams, needs to rely on a strong, consistent running game to keep teams out of two-high. That didn’t happen against the Saints this time around because by the half, the Packers were already down 17-3, they’d run a total of 17 offensive plays to the Saints’ 38, they’d amassed five first downs to the Saints’ 16, and though A.J. Dillon had run two times for 12 yards, he didn’t get many opportunities after that — he finished the game with 19 yards on four carries, and the Packers ran the ball just 15 times for 43 yards. Meanwhile Jameis Winston was on his way to throwing five touchdown passes against a Green Bay defense that looked disorganized in coverage far too often. https://twitter.com/BenFennell_NFL/status/1437811635687763972 So… the run game worked against two-high; it just didn’t give the Packers the explosive plays they were desperate to collect, so they scrapped it. Both LaFleur and Rodgers pointed to this as a problem after the game. “I don’t have many answers in regard to whether we had guys open,” LaFleur said. “I think they had a nice plan. You could tell that they were going to play a lot of 2-man coverages to take away Davante Adams and some of the other weapons. When you have teams that are going to do that to you, you better be able to run the football. We didn’t attempt to run the football much and that’s my fault ultimately as the play-caller.” Rodgers wasn’t blaming anyone, but he agreed with the basic idea. “When a team is going to play that much two [high], then you have to be able to run the ball. We didn’t run it that effectively. I think we came in thinking that they were going to pressure us a bunch like they did last time. We had some different skill guys this time, so they did not pressure us a lot. It was a lot of two [high] and they kind of held up with their front four or their front six.”
The Packers are operating on the wrong end of the NFL’s current paradigm.
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As Rodgers said, when you can stop the run with a light box, you’re putting an entirely different kind of pressure on an opposing quarterback. Last season, the Saints played with a light box on 51% of their defensive snaps, which ranked 14th in the league. But they allowed a Positive Play Rate of 41%, which ranked third. And in a league where most defensive coordinators are looking to assimilate the Vic Fangio/Brandon Staley paradigm of two-high and spun coverages with different kinds of “gap fitters” to create problems for run games against lighter boxes, Rodgers and the Packers are decidedly on the wrong end of the curve. As Cody Alexander of MatchQuarters.com wrote in December, 2020:
One trend on the defensive side of the ball has been the use of a two-high shell to “attract” the offense to run. Now, as most people understand, two-high Quarters has been used for decades to stop high-powered passing attacks, and static alignments (and coverages) in the modern game will get you torched. This shift in the attack by modern offenses has forced defensive coaches around the country, and at all levels, to change the way they think about defending modern offenses. The answer isn’t simply “Two-High Quarters.” An example from the NFL has been the Fangio system which features a two-high shell with a three-down front. What this defense does, in particular, is leverage the fatal shot and give the offense the illusion of a light box. Different than a true four-down, the Fangio system uses five rushers to create man blocking situations and a two-high shell to invite the run, and it’s not even close as NFL Research shows.
https://twitter.com/NFLResearch/status/1334584412667703296?s=20 NFL teams employed quarters coverage approximately three times more often in 2020 than they did in 2018. As teams started to realize a few years back that the wildly popular Seattle static single-high stuff really only worked at a championship level if you had Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas running it, defensive coaches went back to a two-high paradigm with some very different wrinkles than in the 2000s, when everybody wanted to run Tampa-2 like the Buccaneers. The combination of more advanced two-deep coverage with mathematical run fits out of light boxes would seem to hit the Packers harder than most teams from a schematic and philosophical standpoint. That’s not to say that the Packers and their all-time quarterback can’t get past this, but the struggle is real, and it may be that way for a while. “We’ve got to 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. Whether he said that with tongue in cheek or not, Rodgers is smart enough to know which way the wind blows, and LaFleur shouldn’t need a weatherman for that.