Aaron Rodgers did not hand the ball off once during the two halftime-sandwiching touchdown drives that shrugged off the Raiders for good on Sunday. The Packers‘ next touchdown drive — it’s hard to keep them all straight on a day when Rodgers scored six times in a span of eight possessions — featured six throws, two runs and one seemingly impossible turkey-hole shot over Oakland’s zone defense and in front of their safety to leaping wideout Allen Lazard. That was one of eight throws over 20 yards, going to six different receivers, many of them — like Lazard, Danny Vitale and Jake Kumerow — known only to deep Packers web diehards back in May. If it wasn’t obvious enough before Sunday’s win, Peak Aaron Rodgers is back.
The inevitability of this performance built for weeks, starting with Rodgers’ showing in a loss to the Eagles on “Thursday Night Football” in Week 4. His effort last Monday against the Lions was possibly his best game of the last few seasons, until he topped it Sunday. (Pro Football Focus, which now has Rodgers ranked second this season behind Russell Wilson, graded the Lions game slightly higher than Sunday’s six-score fireshow.) Rodgers made more plays within the structure of coach Matt LaFleur’s offense, while LaFleur allowed Rodgers to be more aggressive in Sunday’s perfectly imbalanced attack. Some of Rodgers’ throws — like the back-shoulder corner route to running back Aaron Jones for Green Bay’s first touchdown — were too audacious for most quarterbacks to even attempt.
This shouldn’t be that shocking. Rodgers is learning a new NFL offense for the first time in his career, and it makes sense he looks more comfortable in October than he did in September. While Davante Adams‘ toe injury, which has kept the No. 1 receiver out since Week 4, has highlighted the lack of wideout depth in Green Bay, the Packers boast three difference makers on the offensive line with tackles David Bakhtiari, center Corey Linsley and resurgent right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Rodgers is finally healthy, and Jones is a boss. Then again, it was fair to wonder if and when we would see Peak Rodgers again.
The numbers say Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been the same player since 2015. The excellent Ben Baldwin laid out a compelling case at The Athletic last week that Rodgers’ decline started a while ago, and he has counters to all your counters. The article is well-written, convincing and instructive about the last few seasons, but I wonder if the timing of said article could look tragic by January.
I wrote the first version of this section on Rodgers for my picks column last week, but it got too long. Now it looks too obvious. It’s possible that both of the following statements are true: Rodgers wasn’t anywhere near his best the last few years, and he’s about to go on one of his runs that end in MVP contention. I was worried that my eyes were lying last week, nostalgic for a time when Rodgers could do no wrong. But there’s no counter to what happened Sunday, when Rodgers again played the position at a level few ever reach. In a season where the changing of the guard at quarterback has never been more apparent, Sunday was a reminder there are few phenomenons more powerful than Peak Rodgers.
In this edition of the Debrief, I will look at other NFL stories of resurgence. Which other players and units are returning to form?
1) The Ravens‘ defense is coming around. While all the attention has rightly been on quarterback Lamar Jackson the last few weeks, the changes to Baltimore’s defense are quietly taking hold. Inside linebacker Josh Bynes has made a huge difference, while recent pickup L.J. Fort had a big day in Sunday’s win in Seattle. The addition of cornerback Marcus Peters via trade with the Rams bore immediate fruit in the form of a pick-six and a more aggressive defensive mindset. With Peters and Marlon Humphrey able to play man coverage on the outside, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has been freed up to get more creative with his blitzes up front. Against the Seahawks, Baltimore became the first team this season to hold Russell Wilson to less than 8.1 yards per throw and below 64 percent in completion rate while also handing him his first interception.
The next great Ravens pass rusher does not appear to be on this roster. The team really misses offseason departures Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs. But Martindale has one solid pass rusher in Matthew Judon, and the team has started to use rookie Jaylon Ferguson more often. Third-year pro Tyus Bowser has started to show up and will be asked to do more with starter Pernell McPhee now expected to miss the rest of the season. Baltimore ranks 25th in sacks per game and hasn’t excelled like it did in the past, but there have been signs the last three weeks that the group is turning around. They often win up front, even if they don’t finish the play. The interior duo of Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce probably had its best game of the week Sunday, able to stuff Chris Carson and the stubborn Seahawks rushing game. Veteran safety Earl Thomas is making fewer mistakes, if not big plays. The way Jackson is playing, the Ravens may only need their defense to be good, not great.
3) Jon Gruden is coaching his face off this season. If not for Derek Carr fumbling at the 1-yard line and another goal-line stand by the Packers, the Raiders‘ offense could have easily put up 38 points in limited drives. This is not because of overwhelming wideout talent. In his second year under Gruden, Carr now clearly knows where the answers are in this offense and is finding open receivers. Gruden’s use of all three of his tight ends was creative on Sunday, in a game where he was one step ahead of Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. While Carr played well overall and mostly made good decisions, he missed open receivers to short-circuit the team’s first two drives and had two turnovers. Running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller are stars, and the Raiders‘ excellent offensive line — even without the injured Trent Brown — should keep them competitive most weeks. Oakland’s defense remains a mess, and only an infusion of talent can save them, but it’s worth recognizing that Chucky’s sequel this season has gone a lot better than critics would have ever expected, especially without Antonio Brown and with Tyrell Williams injured.
4) Jeffery Simmons changes the Titans‘ defense. I’m cheating a little here by including Simmons, who played his first NFL game Sunday against the Chargers, returning to the form that made him a star at Mississippi State. When Simmons tore his ACL in pre-draft training in February, it figured to torpedo his draft stock and essentially end his rookie year before it started. (He was also not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine because of a 2016 arrest related to a physical altercation with a woman.)
Instead, the 19th overall pick was arguably the best player on the field in Week 7 despite playing only 20 defensive snaps, according to PFF. Simmons had a sack, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries from the interior. To put that in perspective, Simmons already has more tackles for loss than the three defensive tackles drafted ahead of him combined: Quinnen Williams (0), Ed Oliver (1) and Christian Wilkins (0). Titans coach Mike Vrabel noted that Simmons pushed his opposition 2 yards into the backfield on the Chargers‘ final, failed fumble on the goal line, with Simmons setting up his teammates to make the game-saving play. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said this winter Simmons was a top-five talent in the draft if not for his injury, and he looked every bit that good in his debut.
5) The Bosa name is big again. Joey Bosa had his best game of the season Sunday in Tennessee, with his two sacks and a forced fumble nearly leading the undermanned Chargers defense to a comeback win. He’s stayed healthy and is ranked as PFF’s No. 2 defensive end on the year because of 30 pressures, including five sacks. Yet, the 2016 Defensive Rookie of the Year may no longer be the NFL’s best Bosa.
Joey’s brother Nick Bosa was playing well through injury before the 49ers‘ Week 4 bye, but the rookie has played like a man possessed since. His game-ending sack in San Francisco’s win over Washington followed by my kids’ favorite celebration of the year was one of the few pass-rushing opportunities Nick had on Sunday, but he still managed to make a big impact in the glorious Washington mud. (NFL Game Pass enthusiasts should absolutely watch Redskins-49ers to witness a game Marc Sessler called “The most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”)
It was telling to see Bosa’s speed give Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth fits the previous Sunday. Nick might also see fewer double-teams than Joey because of all the talent in San Francisco. It’s early, but this 49ers defensive line has a chance to be historic, if it gets a nickname. I can’t think of a more talented group in recent NFL history with a higher ceiling than Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair and Solomon Thomas. When Buckner and Bosa pull a stunt or twist together on the right side of the line, it almost seems unfair.
6) It was nice to see the Cowboys‘ defense show up for the 2019 season. Perhaps it was DeMarcus Lawrence‘s mid-week plea for Eagles coach Doug Pederson to shut up, but in Sunday night’s win over Philadelphia, Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and free safety Xavier Woods matched the playmaking that the Cowboys‘ offense — the more criticized side of the ball — had been providing all season. I was not remotely worried about Dak Prescott and Co., which is a top-five group at worst when healthy. I was worried that the Dallas defense hasn’t played anywhere close to its 2018 form until Sunday night. With the injuries suffered Sunday night by Vander Esch and Robert Quinn believed to be minor heading into the team’s Week 8 bye, 4-3 is looking just fine in the NFC’s worst division.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Chase Edmonds, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Who needs David Johnson? With the banged-up former Pro Bowler on the sideline, Edmonds, the 205-pound dynamo from Fordham, continued his breakout year with 150 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in the Cardinals‘ third straight victory. Edmonds is elusive, versatile and efficient. He gained 153 yards from scrimmage in only 18 touches during Weeks 5-6 and showed Sunday against the Giants in the MetLife rain he can carry the load when asked.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: As great as Edmonds was, the Cardinals would not have won if not for Chandler Jones‘ four sacks against the Giants‘ Daniel Jones. Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White had a similarly Pro-Bowl-resume-burnishing type of day in Buffalo, saving the Bills against the Dolphins (one pick, one forced fumble, five tackles).
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.