We’ve all seen the numbers. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked a total of 51 times in 2012 – more than any other NFL quarterback – and 55 times if you count the playoffs. It eclipsed his previous record of 50 sacks in 2009 and brings his five-year total as a starter to 202. His lowest sack count in that span was 31 in 2010, the same year they won the Super Bowl.
Frustrating doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling that Packers fans have in response to this data. Arguably the best player in the game right now is on his back way more often than he should be, and we are all left wondering why. Well, perhaps some fans are looking more for an answer to “who” than for “why.”
Who is to blame for this risk to our precious franchise quarterback? Who can we channel our anger towards when we’re yelling at the 60-inch plasma television?
Unfortunately, that’s not easily answered. But we can give you some suspects to choose from . . .
(don’t forget to cast your vote in the poll below…)
SUSPECT #1: The Blockers (Offensive Line, Running Backs, etc.)
In most cases, the offensive line is usually who we shout profanities at immediately after Aaron Rodgers gets sacked. After all, when it comes to the passing game, their number one responsibility is to protect the quarterback long enough for him to complete a pass. If he goes down, then it means they failed.
During the 2012 season, the two biggest culprits were Marshall Newhouse and T.J. Lang. They each allowed 9 sacks according to ProFootballFocus.com, which accounts for roughly 35% of the 51 total sacks. It’s not surprising that Mike McCarthy felt the need this offseason to shake up the offensive line, pointing specifically to a weakness “on the left side.”
There’s plenty of blame to go around, though. Josh Sitton, Jeff Saturday, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Bryan Bulaga, and Don Barclay combined for another 17 sacks allowed. All in all, that makes 35 sacks from the offensive line, which is a clear majority of the season total.
Let’s not forget, though, that tight ends and backs also share some responsibility for blocking pass rushers. Fullback John Kuhn allowed two sacks and tight end Tom Crabtree allowed one. (Some might be surprised that none of the halfbacks allowed a sack according to PFF, especially in recalling the major gaffes by James “Neo” Starks.)
With those numbers, it’s easy to see why fans (and coaches) are unhappy with their pass blockers. But for all the times they failed, there are other times where they might merely have played the scapegoat.
SUSPECT #2: Aaron Rodgers, the Quarterback
A common criticism of our beloved quarterback throughout the years has been his propensity to hold on to the ball in trying to extend plays. Whether he ends up scrambling for a first down or hitting a receiver on an improvised route, there have been numerous times where Aaron Rodgers’ has saved failing plays. Yet we are ever so reluctant to take the bad with the good.
Kevin Seifert over at the ESPN NFC North Blog recently shared some statistics about the division quarterbacks and their “time in pocket.” (This was actually the impetus for my blog post.) According to ESPN Stats and Information, Rodgers spent an average of 2.82 second in the pocket, which was longer than 34 other quarterbacks. He also had the highest sack rate per drop-back in the NFC North.
Really, this is some fairly damning evidence. It doesn’t take into account plays made outside of the pocket or even the average sack speed, but it does clearly show that Aaron Rodgers took longer to throw the ball than most quarterbacks in 2012.
The major counterpoint is that Rodgers more than makes up for this with the successful extended plays and that he balances out the productivity with fewer interceptions from forced throws. Rodgers is, after all, the only quarterback in NFL history to have been sacked 50+ times in two separate seasons while still maintaining a 100+ passer rating in each. Still, we’re not talking about productivity, we’re talking about sacks, and we want to know whom to blame.
Of course, if the quarterback has no one open to throw to, then can he really be at fault?
SUSPECT #3: The Receiving Corps
It’s easy to forget about this aspect of the offense when it comes to sacks, especially because they spend so much time off of the television screen. Okay, maybe that’s not completely the reason, but it is hard to tell without some well-managed replays who was actually open for a pass and when. From passing lanes to the quarterback’s vision of the field, there are a lot of details involved.
That doesn’t make them faultless, though. If the wide receivers, tight ends, or even running backs are getting open for the quarterback to throw to, then he’s clearly in a bind. No matter how good the blocking is or how accurately Rodgers can make his throws, a blanketed receiving corps can effectively destroy the play. Defenders can’t be blocked forever, and the quarterback doesn’t always have an out.
There’s not much more to say on this point, because as mentioned, it’s difficult and time consuming to accurately identify and track this.
SUSPECT #4: Mike McCarthy, the Play Caller
For as much as some people like to blame the offensive line and Aaron Rodgers for the sacks, there seems to be an equal amount of fervor towards head coach Mike McCarthy and his play calling. A lack of balance between rushing and passing sits as the crux of this condemnation, and it started from the very beginning of the season. Cedric Benson only saw nine carries against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 with Rodgers dropping back a season-high 52 times.
He only suffered three sacks in that game, but the real breakdown came in Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks. Despite the fact that Bryan Bulaga seemed to be having a horrible day individually, McCarthy provided no relief by running the ball only three times in the first half. It resulted in eight sacks for those first two quarters, tying an NFL record.
After some overdue adjustments at halftime, the Packers came out in the third quarter and ran the ball seven times in the first drive alone. I resulted in a field goal and some hope that the game was finally reversing its momentum.
For the sake of avoiding redundancy, we won’t go into some of the other examples throughout the season. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out, though, that running the ball with more balance and consistency helps with pass protection. Not only does it keep the defense honest, but it also allows the offensive line to get more aggressive and wear down the opposing defensive linemen.
Granted, it’s hard to stay balanced when the running game isn’t productive enough. It can also be difficult to know how audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage change the plays called.
Here is where you get to decide whom to point the finger at. Do you blame the offensive line and pass blockers for not getting the job done? Or do you chastise Aaron Rodgers for holding on to the ball too long? Is he holding onto the ball because his receivers aren’t open, though? And yet what can be done when the play calling is detrimental to the situation?
As with most things, there’s probably plenty of blame to go around. Fortunately, Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson seem to be making a strong attempt at fixing things. The changes along the offensive line highlight a desire to better protect Rodgers’ blind side (Bulga, Sitton) while getting some road graders on the right side (Lang, Barclay?).
To further highlight these changes and foreshadow a more balanced offense, the Packers drafted two high-value running backs in Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin.
There’s hope for the 2013 Green Bay Packers offense and its ability to keep Rodgers upright. If the team was able to bounce back from 50 sacks during a disappointing 2009 season and win the Super Bowl, then they can surely do the same thing after what happened last year. They’re making the commitments, so now it’s time to put the plan into action.