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Packers winning methodically

Cover-2 defense frustrates QB Rodgers but it doesn't beat him very often

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

7:53 PM CST, December 11, 2012

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GREEN BAY — Although the Bears have failed repeatedly to hold down the Packers, the rest of the league believes the Bears know how to do it.

So this season, almost every Packers opponent has borrowed the Cover-2 pages from the Bears' playbook. It might not be Star Wars defense exactly in terms of complexity, but it has resulted in the deflections and interceptions of numerous Packers missiles.

"Our offense is not as flashy as last year," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers told the Tribune. "It's tough especially when teams are going to play you very soft the majority of the game, which we've seen this year. It has been 80 percent split safety.

"Teams are making us go the length of the field. We have not had the big, flashy, long touchdown passes and chunk gains. It has been more methodical stuff and uglier wins to our fans probably. It's kind of how we have to win right now."

It has been frustrating to the league's reigning and perhaps future most valuable player. When he sees that familiar look Bears coach Lovie Smith champions, Rodgers thinks, "I can beat that."

But he hasn't been able to win very often by going up top like he did last season. Rodgers' average yards per completion of 7.5 pales next to his 9.2 of 2011.

Rodgers is on track to throw 46 passes of 20 yards or more. Last year, he threw 64. The Packers also are averaging nearly 70 fewer passing yards per game than they did last season.

Some of this is the result of injuries to wide receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson and offensive linemen Bryan Bulaga and T.J. Lang. But some is the result of that darned Cover-2.

One defensive assistant who recently faced the Packers said teams have made subtle changes to their zone coverages against the Packers that have been effective. A little softer look has made those big plays more difficult to complete.

"People who are playing those defenses are banking that you are not going to be able to go the length of the field without missing on third down or having a sack or turning the football over," Rodgers said. "For the most part we've done a good job of being assignment-sound and not turning the football over."

The best way to get a defense out of a two-safety high look is to gash them with the running game. The Packers struggled to do that early, starting three running backs and failing to reach 110 rushing yards in eight of their first 10 games.

But as the temperatures have dipped, their running game has warmed up. In their last two games they have run for 152 and 140 yards respectively.

"We have had some success running it the last couple of weeks against teams playing a lot of Cover-2," Rodgers said. "We'll see that (Cover-2) until we can really establish the run game and make people fear it."

Completing high percentage passes and gaining yards after the catch is another way to hurt the two-safety high coverages. The Packers have tried to go that route more frequently, with mixed results.

It helps them that Rodgers moves like Gene Kelly in cleats, avoiding the rush and extending the play so smoothly.

"When you are playing a lot of zone coverage, most of the defenders have eyes in the backfield as well as on the receiver," Rodgers said. "The more you can move around and get their eyes on you, it gives your guys opportunities to find those soft spots as defenders take their eyes off their receiver. That's one way to frustrate a defense that has you covered up the first few seconds."

Sometimes, Rodgers even takes off, as he did Sunday on a 27-yard touchdown run against the Lions.

"I need to work on my conditioning obviously because I had nothing left once I got in the end zone and I embarrassed myself on that (Lambeau) leap," Rodgers said.

If Rodgers tucks it and runs against the Bears in a game that could determine the NFC North on Sunday, he won't find Brian Urlacher waiting for him. Nick Roach will be playing in the middle in place of the injured Urlacher.

"Nick has really improved the last few years," Rodgers said. "That's a stress point of the defense, making a lot of calls. If they play a lot of (Cover-2), he has to be able to cover the deep middle and also rally up on the underneath stuff that Brian does so well."

Some of the faces have changed in the Bears defense, but the Packers have been going against their scheme all season long.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei