Coller: Should Aaron Rodgers still terrify Vikings fans?

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
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Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

For nearly the past three decades the Minnesota Vikings have been guaranteed to face one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL at the helm of their biggest rival in Green Bay. First it was Brett Favre and then Aaron Rodgers. Both won MVPs. Both won Super Bowls. Both tormented the Vikings.

But over the last few years, Rodgers hasn’t posted quite the same numbers as he did in his heyday. Since 2016, Rodgers ranks eighth in quarterback rating (one spot behind Kirk Cousins) and 20th in yards per pass attempt. In 2019 he only ranked as the 18th best quarterback from a clean pocket by Pro Football Focus.

In games against the Vikings from 2016-2019, he’s gone 3-2-1 with a middle-of-the-road 94.1 rating and has been sacked by the Minnesota defense 22 times. To put that in perspective, Rodgers went 8-3 with 30 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 122.4 rating against Minnesota from 2009 to 2014.

Despite winning both matchups against the Vikings in 2019, Rodgers didn’t perform particularly well, averaging under 6.0 yards per pass attempt and finishing with 425 yards in the two games combined. In the past, you might have expected that from one game of Rodgers against the Vikings.

Does that mean he is no longer the threat that should keep Vikings fans up on Saturday night?

The answer in terms of the bigger picture statistics appears to be yes. But in spurts, he can still very much be the old version.

Rodgers is still capable of reaching back for the fastball at times. With a chance to go to the NFC Championship game against the Seattle Seahawks last year, Rodgers finished with a 113.7 rating, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also had a game with a perfect quarterback rating against Oakland last year.

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is expecting more where that came from as Rodgers heads into the second year under head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.

“I believe that, anytime you’re in the second year of your system that you’re running, you have more confidence,” Zimmer said. “And probably not Aaron, because it’s hard for him to be a little better than what he already is. But I think the players around him will understand it better, and he can communicate to them what he wants better. I think those kinds of things will improve.”

Even if improvements within the system don’t show up right away because of the COVID-altered offseason, Rodgers’s unique capability to improvise hasn’t faded. Per PFF, he produced a quarterback rating eight points higher than league average (94.5) on throws in which he held the ball for more than 2.5 seconds and ranked fourth in the NFL in “Big-Time Throw” rate.

“That’s part of facing a quarterback that moves in and out of the pocket,” Zimmer said. “He makes his hay in the red zone by moving out of the pocket and finding guys and buying time for his receivers, and the receivers do an unbelievable job of taking off and either heading back and changing direction, and then he’s able to find them with the great vision that he has. I was watching some tape on him this morning, and some of the plays he makes take your breath away. It’s kind of like watching Barry Sanders run the football.”

The high-end of Rodgers is still very much high end.

But there wasn't a low end before. Now there is. Rodgers had eight games last year in which he produced a below league average quarterback rating.

Some percentage of his drop off can be attributed to the deterioration of his supporting cast. Rodgers lost Jordy Nelson two years ago and the Packers have not found a way to replace his production. In last year’s draft, they elected to pick quarterback Jordan Love and running back AJ Dillion in the first two rounds rather than getting Rodgers more receivers. This year the strength of his supporting cast may depend largely on the running game and development of receivers like Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

Whether Rodgers can haunt the Vikings in Week 1 might depend as much on how the Packers can gameplan to take advantage of a Minnesota defense that will be without Danielle Hunter and have three new starting cornerbacks.

“It’s always interesting how they try to attack us and the little nuances they try to create to get our defense out of position,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “It’s more about those little in-game adjustments that we need to figure out right away and see who their guys are. Maybe they have some new pieces that they’ve added or maybe they have taken the time to go over their film in the offseason and create little wrinkles.”

The antidote to slowing Rodgers in the past has been pressure. In Week 2, Zimmer’s defense pressured Rodgers on 18 drop backs and he completed just six passes for 72 yards and was sacked twice. In Week 16, he was just as disrupted by the Vikings’ rush, going 5-for-11 with 47 yards and three sacks (per PFF).

Who puts on that pressure is a major question. The Vikings’ recent acquisition Yannick Ngakoue has ranked in the top 20 in pressure rate among defensive ends in two of the last three seasons and is second in forced fumbles since 2016 with 14. He may have to carry the load as the Vikings’ left defensive end spot is up in the air sans Hunter and the interior of their defensive line is built more to stop the run game.

When Rodgers wasn’t pressured, by the way, he went 17-for-17 for 143 yards in the first matchup of 2019 and 21-for-29 for 169 yards the second time around.

So while he doesn’t strike fear into opponents the way he did from 2009 to 2014 -- or, say, the way that Patrick Mahomes does for teams in the AFC West these days -- if the Vikings fail to force Rodgers into sacks and quick throws, they could still very much be haunted by him on Sunday. 

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