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Rodgers Effective On The Run

As a projected first-round draft pick in 2005, quarterback Aaron Rodgers felt that his ability to scramble, get out of the pocket, and pick up yardage running if needed was an overlooked part of his game.

No one is overlooking it anymore.

Rodgers not only leads all NFL quarterbacks in 2009 with 277 rushing yards, but he showed on Monday night against Baltimore how dangerous he can be when given room to run.

With the Packers leading 10-0 late in the second quarter and driving for another score, a 7-yard sack put the offense in second-and-17 from the Baltimore 48-yard line with 1:18 on the clock. The long down-and-distance gave the Ravens a great chance to get a late stop and keep it a two-score game at intermission.

But on the next snap, Rodgers read a "two/man" coverage by Baltimore, which means the Ravens were dropping two deep safeties and playing man-to-man on everybody underneath. Finding no one open right away, Rodgers saw his safety valve, running back Brandon Jackson, slip out to the left, taking middle linebacker Ray Lewis with him, and the middle of the field was wide open.

"That (coverage) really leaves nobody assigned for me, so I was able to get out on that second-and-17 and get 20-some odd yards and get a first down and keep that drive going, which ended up in a touchdown," Rodgers said. "I know that definitely frustrates a defense."

Indeed, Rodgers' 23-yard run set up an 8-yard TD pass to Donald Driver three plays later for a 17-0 halftime lead that turned into a big 27-14 win.

Rodgers' 30 total rushing yards against the Ravens gave him four games this season with 30 or more, including a career-high 52 against Minnesota on Nov. 1. He has proven adept at running out of trouble as well as running the quarterback sneak, scoring a pivotal touchdown on a sneak against Dallas in Week 10 and gaining 5 yards on a third-and-1 sneak last Monday when he spun into an opening on the right side.

On his 49 total rushes this season, Rodgers has posted a gain of at least 10 yards in all but two games, and he has three rushing touchdowns total. His other two came on a quarterback draw at St. Louis and a 12-yard scramble at Tampa Bay, a game he played with two sore feet.

He actually elicited an in-game comment that day from Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris after a scramble about how his feet were supposed to be hurting. They were, but instincts and adrenaline had overruled them.

"We had a good laugh there," Rodgers said.

But it's not just the rushing yards that prove Rodgers' abilities with his legs. It's also the way he has stepped up in the pocket, or stepped out of it altogether, to avoid sacks and still make plays in the passing game on the move.

Rodgers was heavily criticized, and somewhat rightly so, for holding the ball too long and taking too many sacks earlier in the season. But he has been sacked just four times in the last three games - after taking 41 in the first nine contests - and while part of that has been better pass protection, it's also a reflection of a better time clock in the quarterback's head.

Those two elements, not surprisingly, go hand in hand. That the Packers have stabilized the right-tackle spot with veteran Mark Tauscher and started the same five up front for three straight games can't be discounted in Rodgers' looking more smooth and decisive lately when the first or second reads aren't open right away.

"I just think he's doing a much better job feeling it," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's in a groove. The pass protection consistency definitely helps you. Because when things aren't going well and you are getting hit and you think you might have to come out more often than you need to and things like that ...

"But I think he's trusting his feet, he's trusting the pocket, and he's being smart when he steps up and comes out or if he has to come out late."

Rodgers made a couple of key throws on the run on Monday, both on the fourth-quarter touchdown drive.

First, he scrambled right and just before getting to the sideline he zipped the ball to fullback Korey Hall for a 13-yard gain. Then, two snaps later, he stepped to his right to get out of the pocket but immediately fired downfield to tight end Jermichael Finley, who caught the ball at the 5 and ran over safety Tom Zbikowski for a 19-yard TD.

That run-or-throw dual threat when he's out of the pocket has to be accounted for by defenses, and it makes the Packers harder to defend. Now that Rodgers' feet aren't bothering him as much, that threat is an even bigger factor for the offense.

"I pride myself in the way I take care of my body and I put a lot of work in this offseason to get faster and increase my foot speed," Rodgers said. "I take a lot of pride in being able to extend plays.

"The biggest thing is I haven't fumbled on the run (pause ... to knock on the wooden frame of his locker). That's one thing I pride myself on is really taking care of the ball, and to have that many rushes counted to me -- and I know a few of them are sneaks -- but to have that many rushes and not have a fumble, I'm pretty proud of that."

{sportsad300}Soon he might also be proud of his place in franchise history for rushing statistics by a quarterback. His 277 rushing yards so far this year are the most by a Green Bay signal caller since Don Majkowski had 358 in 1989.

If he's able to top Majkowski's number, he'll have the most in Packers history in more than a half-century - since Tobin Rote rushed for 398 yards in 1956.

Rodgers' four rushing touchdowns last year were the most by a Green Bay QB since Majkowski's five, also in '89. With three TDs and only four games left this season, it will be awfully difficult to just get to five let alone surpass it in '09, but if he does someday, six rushing TDs for a quarterback would be the most since Rote's 11 in '56.

But back to the present, and in particular Rodgers' pocket presence that drew such rave reviews on Monday night. The statistics against an aggressive, experienced Baltimore defense said a lot - 40 pass attempts, one sack, four rushes for 30 yards.

Rodgers said in the meeting room the goal often discussed with position coach Tom Clements is for the quarterback to make at least one play with his feet in every game that keeps the chains moving and in turn potentially demoralizes the defense. That 23-yarder against the Ravens was the ticket, and the recent evidence suggests there's more of those to come.

"I thought he played very smart in the pocket," McCarthy said. "Because it's like anything. When you train the quarterback to have in-pocket awareness and out-of-pocket awareness, there's the gray area. When do you stay in, when do you come out? It's a whole another phase of quarterback development that you're always working on. And I thought he was very smart."

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