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Aaron Rodgers Can’t Be Stopped By A Pass Rush Anymore

A certain number of things that happen during a football game come down to skill, and a certain number to luck, and it’s important to be able to tell one from the other. Aaron Rodgers dropping deep in the pocket on a free play and rifling a 34-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Richard Rodgers, under-throwing him but threading it precisely between linebacker Sean Lee’s outstretched arm and his earhole against the Cowboys last weekend? That takes some baseline NFL skills, but mostly it’s a bad pass getting a lucky break. But Aaron Rodgers slipping the pocket, rolling left, pausing, waiting for his receivers to come back across the field, and hitting Jared Cook for a 36-yard catch that was inbounds by a toenail and set up the game-winning field goal? Now that’s a little bit of luck and a whole lot of skill.

Aaron Rodgers is unusually good when pressure comes his way. One of the bedrock principles of defense in the NFL is that pressuring the quarterback works. It worked on Tom Brady and the 18-0 Patriots in 2008, and God knows it worked on Cam Newton and the Panthers in Super Bowl 50. Get to the quarterback, the thinking goes, and you’re in good shape, failing a stroke of luck or the spectacular. But these days there’s a group of quarterbacks, Rodgers included, who are defying that conventional wisdom.

Since 2009, the league average QBR1 on plays with QB pressure is just 18.5, according to ESPN Stats & Information — just barely better than the worst quarterbacking season of the century, Jimmy Clausen’s catastrophe in 2010, which came in at 14.5 QBR. This season, QB performance has seen a modest bump to 29.3 — better, but still not very good. The notable difference, however, is now there are a few quarterbacks who are finding ways to thrive.

Here’s a chart showing the quarterbacks since 2009 who performed best on plays flagged as QB pressures:

1 2016 Jameis Winston 34.9% 80.7
2 2015 Jay Cutler 30.9 75.0
3 2013 Josh McCown 27.6 73.8
4 2016 Aaron Rodgers 28.8 71.8
5 2015 Ryan Fitzpatrick 22.5 71.5
6 2009 Peyton Manning 15.7 61.2
7 2016 Dak Prescott 29.9 58.4
8 2015 Tyrod Taylor 31.7 57.9
9 2014 Carson Palmer 27.4 52.8
10 2013 Ryan Fitzpatrick 23.9 52.5

Source: ESPN Stats & Info Group

Rodgers’s performance through the regular season and two postseason games this year has been exceptional. His 71.8 QBR when pressured this season is the fourth-highest since 2009, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. On Sunday, Rodgers was pressured on 18 of 51 dropbacks, and while he was sacked three times and gave up an interception, he went 7 for 14 for 149 yards, including the 36 that brought the Packers into field goal position. His unadjusted QBR actually went up on these plays, from 79.4 on plays where he wasn’t pressured to 89.7 on plays where he was.

We only have QB pressure data going back to 2009, so that table isn’t exactly a complete survey of the situation. But six of the best eight individual seasons of QBs performing under pressure have come in the last two years.

A few possible explanations for that: First, random noise is always a possibility. Second, something in the collection or interpretation of the pressure numbers may have changed over the years. (I asked around at Stats & Info about this, and the folks there said nothing changed under the hood, but they did note that the stat doesn’t differentiate between duress that comes at the beginning of a play, before a QB escapes to relative safety, and duress that comes just as a QB throws.)

One more caveat: Different shops have different ways of defining “pressure,” so numbers can shift slightly from site to site, but the unifying thread among all the methods is that the QB has to be affected by the rush. So some plays that simply require the QB to step up in the pocket to avoid the rush may be left out of the overall tally. That would seemingly underrepresent mainstays of passing-leader charts such as Drew Brees or Tom Brady, who excel at beating the blitz by throwing the ball before pressure can arrive.

So if the Geriatric All-Pro wing isn’t cracking the pass rush, it should be obvious who is — the guys who can move. Here’s a table showing QBs since 2011 who created the most time outside the pocket. I took the average time to throw and subtracted time in the pocket, leaving us with those magical few seconds when a player such as Rodgers or Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick is rolling around the edge looking for a target:

2011 Tim Tebow 37.1% 17.2 2.9 4.9 2.0
2013 Terrelle Pryor 37.2 11.7 2.6 4.4 1.8
2012 Russell Wilson 31.9 32.7 2.8 4.4 1.6
2012 Aaron Rodgers 23.4 15.5 2.6 4.2 1.6
2014 Colin Kaepernick 31.5 24.4 2.4 4.0 1.6
2012 Colin Kaepernick 25.1 34.9 2.5 4.1 1.6
2015 Russell Wilson 36.1 26.5 2.4 4.0 1.5
2012 Nick Foles 26.2 10.1 2.5 4.0 1.5
2011 Kevin Kolb 33.6 2.4 2.4 3.9 1.5
2015 Aaron Rodgers 32.4 34.7 2.5 4.0 1.5
2012 Ben Roethlisberger 24.7 44.9 2.5 4.0 1.5
2014 Russell Wilson 39.2 33.7 2.5 4.0 1.5
2012 Robert Griffin III 25.5 11.9 2.7 4.2 1.5
2013 Aaron Rodgers 25.0 19.4 2.5 4.0 1.5
2016 Aaron Rodgers 29.4 71.8 2.6 4.0 1.4
2011 Aaron Rodgers 22.2 21.7 2.7 4.0 1.4
2013 Colin Kaepernick 27.2 17.6 2.6 4.0 1.3
2011 Mike Vick 29.1 46.4 2.4 3.7 1.3
2016 Tyrod Taylor 35.5 51.1 2.6 3.9 1.3
2011 Joe Flacco 22.8 17.1 2.5 3.8 1.3
2013 Russell Wilson 36.7 39.0 2.7 3.9 1.2
2011 Ben Roethlisberger 25.4 39.3 2.6 3.8 1.2
QBs under pressure, regular season and playoffs 2011-16

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

There are two types of quarterbacks who consistently create significant amounts of time between when they break the pocket and when they throw the ball: the bootleg and read-option acolytes and the guys who are (and must be) good at running for their lives. Along with a slightly younger version of Ben Roethlisberger and an always-battered Russell Wilson, Rodgers is one of the few QBs on that list who combine out-of-pocket moves with excellence at the more traditional in-pocket throws.

But Rodgers has always been able to buy time once the pocket breaks down, and it’s only recently that he’s turned those moments of brilliance into sustained performance.

Since the start of the 2014 season, Rodgers has thrown for 28 touchdowns and just five interceptions while under pressure. The league average over that span is 3.2 touchdowns per season to 3.2 interceptions. For the season, Rodgers’s QBR when he was pressured was 71.8, which would have put him ninth in the league on all plays, not just pressured ones.

So the big question then: What did Rodgers change?

Rodgers’s pressure numbers look very similar to his old ones on depth of pass, time to pass, and many other stats. The only difference by the numbers is that he appears to be completing more of the same passes he’s been throwing for years.

A critical part of this improvement seems to be that Rodgers is even more comfortable getting out on the edge early in his progressions. Here’s a play against the Vikings in Week 7 of 2011, Rodgers’s first MVP season:

He looks a like a traditional quarterback, going through his progressions until the pocket finally folds, and he busts out and finds an open man.

And now here he is this season:

In part out of necessity, Rodgers no longer bounces around the pocket, or slides around blockers while keeping his feet set. These days, he often makes one or two reads and books it to the outside, where he essentially sets up a secondary pocket. It’s almost a bizarro version of the simplified offense many young mobile QBs run, in which they make one read and then bolt if their man isn’t open.

Who knows if Rodgers will keep this up. Maybe this is unsustainable. Maybe the magic outside the pocket really is just fortuitous but still random chance converging in one season. But Rodgers has had enough success this season that if he keeps on doing what he’s doing, it’ll be hard to argue it’s just luck, no matter how unlikely it might seem.

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  1. I’m using the “raw” version of QBR for this post, since Total QBR isn’t calculated at the split-level. The raw version is just the Total QBR number before it’s adjusted for strength of opponent.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.