Aaron Rodgers' passing comes up short in Packers' season-ending loss to Lions

Pete Dougherty and Eric Baranczyk

GREEN BAY − The Detroit Lions decided to make Aaron Rodgers beat them Sunday night and, with a playoff berth on the line, Rodgers couldn’t do it.

The Packers saw this strategy plenty in the first half of the season as defenses crowded the line of scrimmage to stop running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, while showing little concern about the Packers receiving corps. But after Christian Watson’s emergence at midseason, defenses became more protective of getting beaten by big pass plays.

But even with Watson healthy for this second meeting with the Lions, and with Detroit defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn playing a heavy dose of single-high safety, Rodgers just didn’t quite have it. He made a handful of excellent throws, but his age (39 years old) showed as much as it had all season on a cold night with a wind chill of 12 degrees. Rodgers came up short on several key throws and didn’t make any notable plays on the move on his way to putting up an 83.1 rating, 205 yards passing and only 16 points. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, he went 2-for-6 for 12 yards and an interception.

The play that jumped out as much as any came during the Packers’ failure to get the ball in the end zone on a first-and-goal from the Lions 5 on the game’s first series. On third down from the 4, Rodgers broke the pocket to his right and had a lot of open field. For a moment it looked like he’d be able to run for the score in a race to the pylon, or at least come close enough to get to or inside the 1 and give coach Matt LaFleur the option of going for the touchdown on fourth-and-short.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is sacked by Detroit Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.

Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone was the one defender who would have had a shot at making the tackle. Rodgers probably would have had to take a hit. But Rodgers never stepped on the gas and instead kept rolling out until he threw to a covered Dillon in the end zone. The pass went incomplete, and the Packers kicked the short field goal rather than get the big early seven points. Running on plays like that just aren’t a part of Rodgers’ game anymore.

And while Rodgers threw a strike to Watson on a deep ball to set up a touchdown in the third quarter, he underthrew several other downfield balls that could have been big plays and instead were either intercepted or almost picked off.

Two were to Jones in the third quarter. The first was early in the quarter, when Rodgers had Jones open down the right side for what could have been a 34-yard touchdown if Rodgers had led him toward the back corner of the end zone. Instead, safety Kerby Joseph dropped the leaping interception attempt on the underthrown pass. On the next play, third-and-7, Rodgers threw to Romeo Doubs' shoe tops and the rookie couldn’t make the tough catch. Mason Crosby then knocked the 53-yard field goal off the crossbar.

Then later in the third quarter, Rodgers lofted a ball to Jones down the sideline when he needed to fire a line drive. Joseph had time to range over from safety and intercept, and the Packers were fortunate the interception was nullified by a hands-to-the-face penalty against the Lions.

And on the Packers’ final offensive play of the game, Rodgers had the blitzing Anzalone in his face when he launched a prayer to Watson downfield. Allen Lazard was open over the middle underneath, though the pressure from Anzalone up the middle made it harder for Rodgers to see him. Either way, the throw was well short, and Joseph made the easy interception with only 3½ minutes to play.

The Lions were aggressive up front with their linemen against the run, often slanting them off the snap to disrupt the Packers blocking angles and assignments. That and bringing up a safety near the line of scrimmage to help play the run worked. The Lions held Jones and Dillon to a combined 81 yards on 21 carries.

The Packers needed Rodgers to be the difference with the Lions daring him to throw. He made some good ones – Doubs dropped a perfect strike against tight coverage in the third quarter when he appeared to turn to the ball too late, costing the Packers a big gainer. But Rodgers also came up short on several throws that would have put points on the board in a game the Packers lost 20-16. He very much looked 39 years old in the January cold.

Darnell Savage bouncing back

Darnell Savage has shown signs the past couple of weeks he might not be a lost cause in the Packers defensive backfield.

After being benched a few weeks ago, he was back on the field as a nickel back the past two games and had probably his best game of the season Sunday night. His performance suggests that he might play better the closer he is to the line of scrimmage, and that the Packers will have to seriously consider playing him at the nickel rather than safety, where he was a starter from 2020 through mid-November of this season before risk-taking and blown coverages landed him on the bench.

Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams is tackled by Green Bay Packers linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and safety Darnell Savage.

Savage made three plays that jumped out Sunday night: He broke up a third-down pass to receiver Kalif Raymond in zone coverage in the first quarter, dropped running back D’Andre Swift for a 4-yard loss in the second quarter, and broke up a pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown in man coverage during a hurry-up possession at the end of the second quarter.

Savage had a couple of errors, too – he just missed getting his hand on a flea-flicker pass to Jameson Williams in the second quarter that went for a 66-yard touchdown but was called back because of an offensive holding penalty. He also combined with Rasul Douglas on a bad missed tackle on a third-and-10 check-down pass that Justin Jackson turned into an unlikely first down in the second quarter.

But overall, Savage had a good enough game to think he might again be a full-time player next season – he has a guaranteed contract for 2023 because the Packers picked up his fifth-year option last May.

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The question is where the Packers will play Savage when they get back starting outside cornerback Eric Stokes from knee and ankle injuries this offseason. They could play Savage as their nickel back and perhaps move Douglas from cornerback to safety, instead of playing Douglas at the nickel and Savage at safety, which they did until Stokes’ injury.

The best call very well might be making Savage their primary nickel back.

Extra points on right tackles and Randall Cobb

  • The Packers replaced Yosh Nijman with Zach Tom at right tackle after a couple of series Sunday night, though Tom also had trouble blocking Lions outside rusher Aidan Hutchinson, the talented No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft. Nijman gave up two sacks to Hutchinson, though on the first right guard Jon Runyan actually knocked Hutchinson free of Nijman on an attempted late double team. Tom also gave up a pressure to Hutchinson and another to defensive end John Cominsky.
  • Sunday night was likely Randall Cobb’s final game with the Packers. The undersized, 32-year-old receiver caught only two passes for 11 yards. It’s hard to see the Packers bringing back Cobb at his age and with his injury history even if Rodgers is back at quarterback.