Aaron Rodgers' 2011 season defies hyperbole. To list the milestones and records he's endangering is to invoke some of football's greatest names.
Rodgers is on pace for 50 touchdown passes over a full season, though you have to round up to get there; the single-season NFL record is 50, by Tom Brady. His 130.7 passer rating is better than the league record of 121.1, set by Peyton Manning; if he maintains that, Rodgers would bump Brady (117.2) down to third and Hall of Famer Steve Young (112.8) out of the top three.
Completion percentage of 72.9? Look out Drew Brees and Sammy Baugh. Passing yards (on pace for 5,100)? Dan Marino's mark is vulnerable. Average gain per pass of 9.73? Tommy O'Connell's 1957 record of 11.17 but a couple of fellows by the name of Sid Luckman and Otto Graham could be bounced from second and third.
With all these names required to describe what Rodgers has been doing for the Green Bay Packers this year, it's no surprising that an opposing coach would use not one but two of the greatest quarterbacks of this generation to draw an apt comparison to the Packers' current offensive approach.
"The way I look at it, it's a mixture of the old-school Colts with Peyton Manning and also the New Orleans Saints with Drew Brees," said Jimmy Lake, defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the next team that will try to disrupt Green Bay's undefeated season. "They're that effective in the run game, that effective in the pass game. He's always going to give his running backs premium looks, like [Joseph] Addai had all those rushes up in Indy, because Peyton Manning would hand it off when it was a seven-man box, and if they brought another guy in they'd throw it and that's when the receivers got off. He kind of takes what you give him, and that's what makes him difficult."
In Green Bay, Rodgers is putting his name alongside those of Bart Starr and Brett Favre, the other quarterbacks to bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown. While Favre's career in Green Bay didn't end as gracefully as many fans would have hoped, he still left a sizable legacy, so comparisons to the former Packer "gunslinger" are still largely complimentary for Rodgers. And Rodgers' predecessor is exactly what comes to mind for One Buccaneer defender.
"He reminds me of Brett Favre, honestly, the way he's throwing the ball and his confidence," said defensive end Michael Bennett. "The way he can get away from tacklers and defenders is really impressive.
When Favre was at his peak he was vying with the likes of Manning, Young and Kurt Warner for the unofficial title of best quarterback in the game. Rodgers faces just as stiff competition with Brady, Brees, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger and several others all playing outstanding football. This year, however, it's hard to devise a credible argument that puts any quarterback above the Packers' star.
"He's playing the best football in the league right now," said Bucs cornerback E.J. Biggers. "He's doing everything right, not making mistakes. That's all you want to see in a quarterback. Those guys execute to perfection. Everything they do is precise. They're not worried about what the other team is doing. They're just playing their style of football. If you're not ready, by the time you look up the score is out of hand."
So how do you stop, or at least slow down, a quarterback playing in such a historic groove? By remembering that, while it may seem like Rodgers is playing a different game than everybody else right now, it's still just football, and there are talented players on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
"Play Buc football," said Biggers. "That's what I've been saying the last couple weeks. We've just got to get back to the basics – Buc football, running around, flying around, everybody getting to the ball. They have a lot of weapons. Everybody gets the ball, he spreads it out a lot, and they're all effective when they get the ball in their hands. We've just got to man up and play Buc football. We have to match their intensity and match their effort. If we go with the game plan and listen to our coaches and get better this week, everything will work itself out."
Added linebacker Mason Foster: "He uses all of his receivers. Every single person on his team is a weapon and he uses them like that. It's going to be tough, but I feel like we have weapons on our defense and we've got to go out there and make plays to shut him down."
Fortunately – if that word is applied correctly here – the Buccaneers' defense gets to test itself on an annual basis against high-powered passing attack. The New Orleans Saints have actually thrown for more yards and close to the same number of touchdowns as the Packers this year, and while Brees' passer rating is only 101.3 so far, he directs the same sort of spread-the-ball-around attack as Rodgers. The Bucs have beaten Brees and the Saints in three of their last five meetings, including twice in hostile territory. The formula involves worrying more about points and opportunities than the simple piling up of yardage. The Bucs split with the Saints this year and allowed them their two lowest point totals of the season.
"You've got to try to create turnovers, try to get off the field on third down – the same thing that we do against any other opponent," said safety Tanard Jackson. "We've been facing a high-powered offense like this twice a year. They're a different team – we don't know them as well and they don't know us as well, so it might be a game of chess."
It definitely will be a game of chess, which makes Lake's comparisons to Manning and Brees particularly apt. Lake and the Bucs' defensive coaches know that any one approach against Rodgers and the Packers' diverse attack will eventually fail, so they intend to mix it up. Rodgers will certainly counter with his own moves, but perhaps the Bucs can stay one step ahead enough times to force a few game-changing turnovers.
"You have to make plays on the football, whether it's a linebacker or a DB in coverage," said Lake. "You have to make a play. You sit back and let these guys slow-death you and play a lot of zone, they'll eat that up all day long. At some point in this game we're going to have to man up, get up there and play man coverage against these talented guys and make plays.
" You've got to change it up. You can't say, 'Okay, here we go, this is what we're going to do every snap.' That's not good. You can't let them do that. You've got to change it up. You've got to drop everybody, you've got to bring everybody, you've got to sometimes play a little soft, then you've got to play real physical."
Of course, Lake also pointed out that Rodgers has developed a Manning-like ability to divine what the opposing defense is doing and get his team into the right play to expose it. With all of his weapons, Rodgers can afford to take whatever it is the defense gives him. Thus, it will be important for the Bucs' defense to disguise what it is trying to do at times. However, that's a double-edged sword as well. Lake says if you spend too much time trying to disguise your defensive plays, you risk the chance of being caught out of position one too many times. There will be times that the Bucs will simply challenge the Packers' pass-catchers, man-to-man, and see who wins.
In that battle, the Bucs will be facing an opponent who is supremely sure of what he is doing right now.
"He's got a lot of confidence, said defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. "His receivers are catching the ball. They're giving him time, and when he doesn't have time he can get away and throw the ball. That does a lot for a quarterback when no matter what you throw the receivers are catching it, and he's got some great receivers.
"It's going to be a great test for us to pass-rush and get up the field. Hopefully we'll get Aaron rattled and really get after him. You've just got to do what you've got to do and not try to change your scheme for what they do. We've just got to be ourselves and go out there and play ball."