It’s not so much what the Seahawks will see from Aaron Rodgers that will determine whether they clinch their division’s championship in Week 14.
It’s what they’ll hear.
The key to Sunday’s game between Seattle (8-3-1) and Green Bay (6-6) here at wintry Lambeau Field may be the two-time NFL most valuable player’s voice.
Rodgers is renowned inside the league for his hard “double” snap counts. He shouts loud, fake signal calls at defensive linemen to get them to jump offside before the snap. When they do, he continues what amounts to a free play, knowing the defense is about to get penalized no matter what happens on the rest of the down.
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There is about as much a chance that a Seahawk jumps offside and gives Rodgers a free shot down the field as there is that we will see what everyone in Seattle talked about all this past week: snow. Local forecasts are calling for snow accumulating anywhere from 1-5 inches during the afternoon. Kickoff is at 3:25 p.m. local time (1:25 p.m. PST).
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, in assessing quarterbacks and hard counts, has said he thinks Rodgers is “probably the best at it.”
Seahawks defensive tackle Tony McDaniel sees no “probably” about it.
“Aaron Rodgers is the best at it,” said McDaniel, an 11-year veteran – and one of many past victims of Rodgers’ ploy. “There is some stat out there that he’s gotten the most guys offside because of his hard count.”
Why yes, there is: Last season Rodgers co-led the league by drawing 17 offside penalties. This year it’s been 12 such flags in 12 games.
“It’s aggressive. It’s tricky. And he stays consistent throughout the ball game,” McDaniel said. “Eventually, someone will break during the game. He’s even get some of his offensive linemen offside, he does it so well. It could be any given time.”
Rodgers does it in obvious situations, such as third down and less than 5 yards to go, when an offside penalty would give Green Bay a gift first down. He’s also done it against Seattle on second-and-17, first-and-15 – whenever.
That’s because it’s not just the free 5 yards Rodgers gets his offense with the flags. It’s the free plays.
If his linemen, who are used to the quarterback’s verbal tricks, don’t move when a defender enters the neutral zone, that allows the play to continue while the defender who jumped offside jumps back to his side of the line. Officials throw flags, but it is a live-ball foul if the defender is not running unabated toward Rodgers. (So there’s the antidote: If you jump offside, keep going in a beeline to the quarterback to negate the free play.)
When Rodgers, a 12-year veteran who learned the game’s edges from Brett Favre, continues with a free play when the defense is offside, he often chucks the ball downfield – even into tight coverage.
It’s no risk, all reward. If his pass is intercepted on such a play, the offside penalty will wipe out the turnover. If it’s caught, voila! Penalty declined, big gain or touchdown accepted by the grinning Packers.
“Aaron Rodgers makes a living off of free plays,” Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said. “He’s one of the most adept at it probably in league history, drawing people offsides and getting deep penalties on people, pass interference.
“I think they got the longest pass interference of the season this year, like 70 yards or something like that.”
Sherman hates that the NFL makes defensive pass interference a spot foul at the place of infraction instead of a 15-yard penalty for passes beyond 15 yards down the field.
“That’s one of those rules that needs to change, and needed to change a long time ago,” Sherman said. “Until they do, people will keep taking advantage of it.”
Nobody takes advantage of defensive penalties more than Rodgers. And against no one more than Michael Bennett.
The Seahawks’ Pro Bowl defensive end is so eager to get off the ball quickly for an advantage over slower blockers, he often guesses the opposing snap count. Thus, to the unending frustration of many Seattle fans, he jumps offside about as often as the sun rises on game days.
The Seahawks have gone offside six times in their past two games against Rodgers and the Packers. It’s seven times in their past three games against Green Bay.
Six of those seven flags have been against Bennett. The other was on McDaniel.
The Packers have scored 17 points as the result of those free plays.
“He just does it so much. He knows that people want to get off the ball,” Bennett said. “He gets ’em. He’s just a good quarterback.
“He just keeps going, over and over: ‘HutHutHutHutHut!!! ...’
“I’ve been caught on that a few times, but fortunately we’ve come out on the ‘W’ side of that.”
In two of the past three, anyway.
Both of the Seahawks’ wins in those three meetings – including in the NFC title game in January 2015 – were in Seattle, where CenturyLink Field’s noise usually diminishes Rodgers’ ability to use the hard count when the Packers have the ball.
But Bennett jumped offside on the opening drive of Seattle’s game at Green Bay in Week 2 of the 2015 season. Twice. The second time was on second-and-15. Rodgers took the snap on the free play and, sure enough, chucked the ball to the deep middle of the Seahawks’ defense. James Jones came down with that for a 29-yard touchdown.
During a Green Bay two-minute drill at the end of the first half that night, Rodgers enticed Bennett offside again, on second-and-17. On that free play Rodgers threw a pass he would not have otherwise, 50 yards down the right sideline to Ty Montgomery even though Sherman was in stride with Montgomery. The pass fell incomplete but officials flagged Sherman for being too grabby. The 52-yard pass-interference penalty set up a Green Bay field goal.
How important can this be to a game’s bottom line? Those two instances in September 2015 led to 10 points off free plays Rodgers got by drawing Bennett offside. The Seahawks lost by 10 points, 27-17.
Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard smiled when asked whether he had to remind Bennett this past week about Rodgers’ hard count.
“Our guy wants to get off the rock, get after people,” Richard said. “We just have to make sure he’s able to keep it under control. There’s no doubt about it: The key to football is they snap it, we roll.
“It’s a very good football team. A very good quarterback. You know you can have a great impact on the game if you’re able to get him on the ground. We just have to make sure we maintain our poise and just cannot get overanxious in regards to getting after him.”
Bennett and the Seahawks aren’t alone. The Jaguars, Vikings, Titans and Eagles each have fallen for Rodgers’ hard count twice in a game this season.
How does he stay so good at it?
Rodgers explained to The New York Times last year that he studies not just coaches’ tape of games but the network broadcasts, so he can get the on-field television audio. He uses that to self-scout his cadences. When he detects a pattern in how he’s calling fake snap counts, he figures that foes have, too. So he changes his calls.
He says he learned this craftiness while backing up Favre in 2004-06, at the end of the Hall of Fame legend’s time as Green Bay’s quarterback. Rodgers took what he learned and practiced his cadence skills while running the Packers’ scout teams in those seasons Favre was starting.
Sunday, as sure as snow, Rodgers will put those skills to use again. He’ll do just about anything – maybe even a Discount Double Check – because his Packers (6-6) are desperately trying to stay in the NFC North race. They trail first-place Detroit by two games.
Bennett will be listening. And Richard and the Seahawks will be watching, to see whether lessons have been learned. If they have, it could go a long way toward Seattle clinching the NFC West, which would happen with a Seahawks win and an Arizona loss.
“It’s his diaphragm,” Richard joked of Rodgers.
“He has a real good knack for it. It’s a gift.
“He does a whole lot of things well. That’s just part of his package.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (8-3-1) at GREEN BAY PACKERS (6-6)
1:25 p.m. Sunday, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
The series: Green Bay holds a 9-7 series edge in the regular season. The Packers have won two of the three playoff meetings, both at Lambeau. The Seahawks have won three of their last four overall against, including their miraculous overtime win in the January 2015 NFC title game at CenturyLink Field. The Packers won last September’s meeting in Green Bay 27-17, the Seahawks’ largest margin of defeat in the last five seasons. Seattle’s last win at Green Bay was on Nov. 1, 1999. Jon Kitna threw two touchdown passes for the Seahawks and Brett Favre threw four interceptions in the Packers’ 27-7 loss. That Monday night was new Seattle coach Mike Holmgren’s first game back in Green Bay after leaving the Packers.
Line: Seahawks by 3.
He is, after all, from Michigan: Among the many things the Seahawks still don’t know about Thomas Rawls: Can the oft-injured second-year running back plow through snow. As of Friday, the constantly changing forecast for Lambeau on Sunday was for an 80 percent chance of snow accumulating 1-3 inches during the afternoon. That’s weather conducive to running the ball. Rawls had his first 100-yard rushing game of the season this past Monday, and Seattle is coming off its best run game in two years, 240 yards against a Panthers defense that was second in the league against the run coming in. Green Bay is ninth. Time to see if Rawls’ upbringing in Flint, Michigan, included running in the snow.
He is not, actually, from Wisconsin: Russell Wilson only played there. And just for a single college season for the Badgers, a couple hours south of Green Bay. Yet he says he’s hoping for “a downpour of snow” Sunday. It reminds the 28-year-old QB of his days and night in friends’ backyards during boyhood winters in Richmond, Virginia. As Wilson said, the offense has the advantage on a snowy field because they know where they are going and the defense has to react. If Wilson out-duels Aaron Rodgers in the snow, No. 3’s legend will grow yet again. And, yes, the Seahawks will take shots down the field, regardless of the conditions.
Stay onside. Go get Rodgers: Green Bay’s two-time NFL MVP is hot again: seven touchdowns, no interceptions while completing 69 percent of his throws for a passer rating of 113.9. He throws an average of 40 times per game. He’s has been sacked 25 times in 504 dropbacks. Richard Sherman may do some shadowing of Jordy Nelson, who is tied for second in the league with 10 touchdown catches. While those two are battling, Seahawks Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril (10 sacks) and Frank Clark need to wait through Rodgers’ hard snap counts, not give him free plays – as Seattle has seven times in the last three meetings – and keep him from staying hot.
Wilson is 16-3 in December. Rodgers is 15-2 at home in December. Seattle will get Green Bay’s best – performances and weather – but pulls out a season-boosting win behind Rawls’ resurgence. Seahawks 21, Packers 17.
23 – Steven Terrell, FS (5-10, 197, fourth season): Earl Thomas’ season-ending broken leg means Terrell will make his second career start. Think Rodgers might target him?
34 – Thomas Rawls, RB (5-9, 215, second season): Coming off first 100-yard game this season. Time to stomp and romp in the snow.
72 – Michael Bennett, DE (6-4, 274, eighth season): Can’t jump offside and give Rodgers free plays – as he has six times in past three meetings.
12 – Aaron Rodgers, QB (6-5, 244, 12th season): 29 TDs, 7 INTs. Roaring lately, with 7 TDs, 0 INTs in his past 3 games. 15-2 at home in December.
32 – Christine Michael, RB (5-11, 221, fourth season): On his fourth team in 14 months. Seattle waived him just weeks ago, and he remains team’s leading rusher (469 yards).
52 – Clay Matthews, LB (6-3, 255, eighth season): Pro Bowl centerpiece is playing with one good arm after shoulder injury. Still lines up everywhere.
Gregg Bell: email@example.com