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Sneaky, sneaky? For Packers, not so much

By By Jason Wilde
Published On: Oct 02 2013 12:10:40 AM CDT
Green Bay Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -

Aaron Rodgers spent a portion of his bye week incommunicado. For a few days, he was in his native California, and his iPhone was off.

“Even if it was on, I couldn’t really be reached,” the Green Bay Packers quarterback said Tuesday on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “It’s nice to go off the grid – not entirely off the grid but to some remote places and realize there’s some beauty in life other than your cell phone and the Internet.”

But, by Sunday, the self-described “football fan” still found himself watching games on TV. He caught a portion of the Philadelphia-Denver game while traveling back to Green Bay; watched much of the Sunday Night Football game between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots; and watched the Miami Dolphins – coached by his old offensive coordinator and friend, Joe Philbin – lose to New Orleans on Monday Night Football.

In both the Sunday night and Monday night games, Rodgers saw short-yardage situations where a quarterback sneak could have been called. On Sunday night, he saw the Patriots give LaGarrette Blount the ball on third-and-1 late in the game, with the Patriots clinging to a 7-point lead. Then, after Blount was stopped for no gain, he saw quarterback Tom Brady and center Ryan Wendell fumble the exchange on fourth down, giving the Falcons the ball and a chance to force overtime (although they didn’t). It appeared Brady was going to hand off had he not lost the ball.

Then, on Monday night, he saw the Dolphins come up an inch short on a second-down play at the New Orleans 9-yard line. On third-and-an inch, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, Rodgers’ first head coach in the NFL in 2005 with the Packers, called for a handoff to running back Daniel Thomas, who was stuffed for a 2-yard loss, rather than calling athletic quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s number on a sneak. The Dolphins settled for a field goal, making it 7-3 in a game that would end up 38-17.

In both situations, those teams could have called a quarterback sneak, just as the Packers could have the last time they played – on Sept. 22 at Cincinnati. In that game, the Packers were facing fourth-and-inches at the Cincinnati 30-yard line while clinging to a 30-27 lead with 4 minutes, 1 second to play in the fourth quarter.

Coach Mike McCarthy decided to go for it, and called a handoff to rookie running back Johnathan Franklin, the team’s lone remaining healthy back at the time. Franklin, of course, fumbled as he was about to leap over the pile and the Bengals returned it for the go-ahead touchdown.

So what in the hallowed name of Bart Starr is going on here? Is the quarterback sneak a thing of the past, just like the Ice Bowl?

According to Rodgers, it is.

“League-wide, you are not seeing a ton of those consistently converted,” Rodgers said Tuesday.

With Rodgers, you aren’t even seeing them attempted. He hasn’t had a fourth-down rushing attempt since 2010 – when he converted a fourth-and-1 – and according to STATS, he’s had just 11 rushing attempts on third-and-less than 2 yards during that time.

STATS does not differentiate between scrambles and called running plays in their statistics, and they also don’t break down quarterback sneaks as compared to other types of runs. So far this season, Rodgers has only one rushing attempt on third-and-less than 2 yards: At San Francisco in the Sept. 8 regular-season opener, he ran for 6 yards on a naked play-action bootleg on third-and-1 at the Packers’ 40-yard line to keep a touchdown drive going. On that play, Rodgers wasn’t touched before going out of bounds, whereas he likely would have been hit hard on a quarterback sneak.

“A lot of times it depends on the length. It's almost a lower percentage play when it's fourth and a couple inches, as compared to maybe a third (down) and two feet,” Rodgers said of using the sneak. “If you watch some of the games, you can see Tom (Brady) has had some effectiveness obviously throughout his career of converting one-and-a-half yards on a third down doing a quarterback sneak.”

That Brady has. According to Sports Illustrated, Brady entered the season having converted 56 straight short-yardage situations, and he hadn’t been stopped on a quarterback sneak since 2005. In the opener against Buffalo, Brady fumbled the snap on fourth-and-goal from the Bills’ 1-yard line, just as he did Sunday night.

Rodgers, who has gotten to know Brady over the years, said one of the keys to his success on short-yardage plays is that he doesn’t simply dive forward behind the center or into one of the A gaps between the center and a guard. Rather, Rodgers said, Brady slides down the line slightly and then moves forward in the B gap (between the guard and the tackle) or even the C gap (outside the tackle).

“Tom often takes it B or C gap. He kind of offsets to the left a little bit,” Rodgers said.

“You’re just less likely to get those two A-gap defenders on a third-and-1, maybe, as opposed to a third-and-6 inches or a fourth-and-a couple inches. You’re more likely to get everybody in the box tight, the line shrinks their splits. I really feel like it's a difficult play to convert when you have those circumstances tied together.

“However, we have had some good success here in the past on quarterback sneaks. I feel my percentage running them is fairly high. But it is a mindset up front that our guys are going to be lower than the defense. I know we feel like, regardless of the call, whether it's a quarterback sneak or dive or outside zone, we’ve got to convert 100 percent of those.”

For his part, Rodgers said he has no problem doing the quarterback sneak. But the numbers would indicate that the coaches don’t want to be calling their prized QB’s number and exposing him to potential bodily harm now that he’s established himself as one of the league’s top players.
According to STATS, in 2012, Rodgers had eight rushing attempts on third-and-2 yards or fewer and rushed for 33 total yards, converting all eight into first downs. In 2011, he was 2 for 2; in 2010, he was 1 for 4; in 2009 he was 3 for 3; and in 2008 he was 3 for 4. So since ascending to the starting role, Rodgers is 18 for 22 when running on such third-down plays. On fourth downs, he was 1 for 1 in 2010, 1 for 2 in 2009 and 3 for 3 in 2008.

Brady, meanwhile, has been the master. According to STATS, he is 67 for 69 on third-and-2 yards or fewer and 17 for 21 converting on such fourth-down plays, including the two fumbled snaps this season, which in the official stats count against Brady.

After the loss to the Bengals, offensive coordinator Tom Clements was asked about the quarterback sneak and why the team has gone away from calling it in recent years.

“We’ve used them in the past,” Clements replied. “What we’ve tried to develop are some runs that give you the same benefit as a quarterback sneak with a guy who’s used to running the ball.”

Asked if, as far as he knew, Rodgers was OK with running them, Clements replied, “He’s not adverse to QB sneaks.”

On Tuesday, the one quarterback sneak Rodgers recalled was when he fumbled near the goal line at Atlanta during the 2010 regular season, when he was stuffed for no gain on third-and-goal from the Falcons’ 1-yard line and Curtis Lofton stripped him at the goal line. The Falcons ended up recovering in the end zone, and instead of a 10-0 lead, the Packers watched Atlanta march down the field for a go-ahead touchdown right before halftime in what would be a 20-17 loss.

“That was disappointing,” Rodgers said.

That same year, Rodgers was stuffed on a third-and-goal from the 1 early in the second quarter at Washington. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Rodgers threw incomplete for tight end Andrew Quarless, and the Packers went on to lose, 16-13, in a game in which Rodgers suffered a concussion.

As for the danger of the play, Rodgers said he has encountered some during his career – including losing a key piece of equipment.

“I’ve gotten my helmet ripped off a couple times. That seems to be something defenders enjoy doing on those,” Rodgers said with a chuckle. “Because often what happens is if defensive line submarines and the offensive line tries to go low, then it creates this you-and-the linebackers (situation), who have a little bit of a running start on you. Which, if you’re going right over the center, doesn’t always bode well for the quarterback, obviously. Occasionally you get a helmet taken off.”

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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