GREEN BAY – It falls into the classic somthin’s-gotta-give category.
The Miami Dolphins lead the NFL with 15 interceptions. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is tied for the fewest interceptions thrown this season – one.
Quite simply, whether Rodgers can keep the ball out of harm’s way or the Dolphins can get the league’s most INT-averse QB off his game could go a long way in deciding Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field.
“They’ve made a lot of plays on the ball,” Rodgers said. “Nice disguise packages. They play some different coverages behind their pressures. They’re guys with vision to the football, which always means you have to be smart about your eye discipline.”
So look for Rodgers to try to “look off” defenders with his eyes and be especially cognizant of not giving away where the ball is going. He’s pretty good at it anyway, which is partly why he hasn’t thrown double-digit interceptions in a season since 2010. He’s also, clearly, well on pace for a career low this year, with his current best for a full season being just five picks in his second MVP year of 2014.
The trick with the Dolphins’ defense is there’s not just one ball-hawk to avoid. Safety T.J. McDonald, cornerback Xavien Howard and linebacker Kiko Alonso have three interceptions apiece, and safety Reshad Jones has two, with four other players snatching one each.
Last week it was linebacker Jerome Baker’s pick-six against the Jets that bailed out a rough day for the Dolphins’ offense in a 13-6 victory that improved Miami to 5-4, a record that puts Adam Gase’s team right in the thick of the AFC wild-card race.
“They play with vision, and they’re definitely fast reactors to the football,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “They’re getting hats and hands on the football, so we need to make sure our time clocks are in order, and we’re playing fast.”
In other words, timing routes have to be precise, because a disruption in timing is precisely what the Dolphins will pounce upon.
If there’s a quarterback who practices ultra-avoidance of interceptions, of course, it’s Rodgers. That’s his approach regardless of the opponent, so he’s not necessarily changing anything this week, but film study will remind him what a momentary lapse can cost.
With just 79 interceptions in 5,222 career pass attempts, Rodgers’ 1.5 interception percentage is the all-time best in the NFL. Second place is 1.8 percent (Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick), which is equivalent to Rodgers throwing 15 more interceptions to this point. His margin in this category is significant, and while individual statistics take a back seat to team success, if there’s one stat Rodgers is most proud of, it’s probably this one.
“My junior year in high school I threw nine interceptions, and I realized I wasn’t going to be on the field much longer if I kept turning the ball over,” he said. “Still too many fumbles this year, but it’s just always been a part of my game, taking care of the football, and high-percentage throws.
“Even tight windows is a calculation of what the highest-percentage throw is. You have to take shots at some point, but the less balls defenders are getting their hands on, the lower the interception percentage.”
His one pick this season, back in Week 4 vs. Buffalo, is tied for fewest in the league in 2018 with Drew Brees. If Rodgers doesn’t add to that total this week, he’ll be in position for success against a Dolphins defense that ranks 28th against the run, 22nd against the pass, and had allowed at least 28 points in three straight games before picking off Jets rookie QB Sam Darnold four times last week.
Avoiding interceptions isn’t the only key to the game, though. The Packers’ 3-4-1 record despite just one Rodgers pick all season is evidence of that.
In the turnover world, the Packers’ one fumble at an inopportune time each of the last two weeks will serve as the defining moments of 2018 if the team doesn’t turn things around.
The defense also needs to start taking the ball away. One turnover against either the Rams or Patriots could have been invaluable, and the Packers have now failed to generate a takeaway in three of their last four games, losing all three of those contests.
At some point the worm must turn for the Packers to make something of their season, but it starts this week with Rodgers maintaining the status quo in the INT department.
“Historically we’ve hit our stride in the second half,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We can’t obviously rely on that, but with four losses, we definitely need to start picking it up.
“We need to start winning games now.”