The Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary has yet another tough task this Sunday. They will be taking on 2020 MVP Aaron Rodgers, 2020 First Team All-Pro Davante Adams, and the rest of the Green Bay Packers offense. The Steelers last played the Packers in 2017, but they last played Rodgers a decade ago, in their Super Bowl 45 loss to the Packers in 2011. After an uncharacteristically poor start in Week 1, the Packers offense looked dialed in focus-wise, in Weeks 2 and 3. At the start of this season, the Rodgers-Adams connection is trending back to where they left off last season (with potential for even more growth, which is a shockingly terrifying thought for their opponents, but fun for NFL fans).
In Week 3 against the San Francisco 49ers, despite a questionable, scary hit that looked like it would sideline Adams for the rest of the game (he did not suffer a severe injury and was cleared to resume play thankfully), their rapport looked as strong as ever as Adams returned to haul in key, pinpoint Rodgers passes that would go on to position the Packers to win the game with a field goal.
Adams finished the day with 12 receptions for 132 yards on 18 targets. The Week prior vs. the Detroit Lions, he had 8 receptions for 121 yards on 9 targets. The duo may be beginning to find their groove.
Like the Steelers’ main defensive focus for Week 1: Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams is a premier NFL wide receiver. In my opinion, he’s the top dog, second to none. His releases are consistently superb, his route running is elite, and his hands are impeccable. He can line up outside and in the slot. He’s deceptively shifty with and without the ball in his hands, and the same can be said about his body control. Furthermore, he stands at 6’1” 215 lbs and can jump with most any DB. Adams has no glaring weakness or point of attack for defenders.
Also like Stefon Diggs (and Darren Waller), the Steelers’ focus should be to limit Adams, because they most likely won’t be able to stop him from producing completely. Bracket coverage could be their best option in an attempt to force Rodgers to hold the football, as he works through his progressions to find someone else (Adams obviously won’t always be the primary read), in the hope that the pass rush will get to him before he’s able to find said open target.
With all that being said, let’s get into Adams’ All-22 tape from Weeks 2 and 3.
The Packers like to get Davante Adams touches in a variety of different ways (manufactured and not). Whether that’s RPOs, screens (can be a part of RPOs), other short routes, or even Rodgers tossing Adams a pass at the LOS if a DB is playing far off him, it allows Adams to pick up free yards with his shiftiness/COD in order to make 2nd and 3rd down more manageable yardage wise (as yinz have seen so far this season, digging yourself into a hole on 1st down makes moving the sticks that much more difficult on 2nd/3rd down.
Rodgers and the Packers often take what the defense gives them, a smart philosophy, but one that’s easier done when the defense must respect the downfield attack). The threat (and completion) of short, easy passes/receptions so that Adams can pick up YAC, in turn creates the opportunity for deep routes/shots, and vice versa. The defense can’t just stick back, but they also can’t play too aggressively underneath.
Therein lies the dilemma for defenses playing the Packers. They must be smart and calculated in how they choose to defend (I’ve already touched upon a potential game plan(s) for the Steelers and will go more in-depth in a little).
In this first clip, Adams is at the top of the screen boundary side and runs a hitch. After sitting down in open space for an easy grab, he then snatches a few ankles from the Lions defenders trying to get their hands on him. Easy, wide-open pitch and catch for a first down here. Adams has RAC ability to pick up first down yardage. He may not have the tackle/angle-shattering speed to house many short passes, but he will move the chains if given a chance to do so. The Steelers’ best course of action could be to have the corner lined up on him, play Adams physically at the LOS with safety help over top (a type of bracket coverage, as mentioned).
Suffocating forms of double coverage for most of the game would make it difficult for Rodgers and Adams to march down the field with freebies, but the corner would also have safety insurance in case Adams were to shake him at the line, which is something Adams commonly does to aggressive (and even passive) DBs. The Steelers will also have to alter and disguise their coverage(s) often, giving Aaron Rodgers variations of different man and zone coverages to decipher, because he will pick them apart if they do not.
In Week 3 against the Bengals, The Steelers had difficulties getting consistent pressure on Joe Burrow with starting OLBs T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith sidelined (the defense only pressured him once according to Next Gen Stats – 5.6% rate), even when the Bengals’ utilized just 5-man protections. While Watt and Highsmith returning will obviously boost the pass rush tremendously, they can’t let Aaron Rodgers work with clean pockets in Week 4.
Rodgers is playing with a bit of a re-tooled offensive line from his 2020 MVP season to now. Starting 2020 All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari will not be playing, as he continues to recover from the ACL tear he suffered last year, and starting 2020 All-Pro center Corey Linsley joined the Los Angeles Chargers in offseason free agency. How their O-line fares against a healthier version of the Steelers’ pass rush than was seen a week ago, will be a deciding factor in the Packers’ offensive play.
If the Steelers can force Rodgers to get the ball out quickly, or even prevent him from doing so entirely, that will help them avoid giving him the chance to connect on deep shots to Davante Adams. If they can’t, Adams will be able to work whichever DB is guarding him downfield (especially if the DB is without safety help). So far on the year, Adams has 9 receptions of 15+ yards.
According to PFF, that tops the league (tied with Cooper Kupp and Deebo Samuel). Adams works every area of the field at the highest level. He’s no blazing fast speedster, but his technical ability often allows him to outclass the corner trying to cover him.
CB Joe Haden has said that he will not shadow Adams. If that’s true, whoever Adams lines up in front of will need to bring their A+ game. The Steelers’ mentality should be like the one I suggested they employ against the Bills; keep everything in front to make the Packers O sustain full drives. Key in on Adams as the primary defensive focus (in the passing game) in order to force Rodgers to look someone else’s way. Make someone else beat you.
Here’s why all that information is pertinent to this clip. On this play, the Lions rush four and do not get pressure on Rodgers, so Rodgers sits in the pocket, surveying his deep options. Davante begins the play as the receiver at the bottom of the screen field side.
At the snap, he gets going in a straight path to eat up the cushion between him and the DB in off coverage. Then, as the DB flips his hips toward the middle of the field, Adams cuts sharply to the outside and around the DB as he continues vertically. Before he even stacks the defender, Rodgers is releasing a tear-drop pass towards the sideline, on Adams’ outside shoulder. Adams stacks the defender as the ball is being released and beginning to sail, then he tracks it to its destination by the sideline. Rodgers placed it there because it’s a spot where only Adams has a chance to catch it. The defender is trying to recover with his head turned away from Rodgers, and Rodgers sees the deep middle of the field safety, so he puts the pass where it will either be completed or not. No risk of an interception with that throw. No risk, only reward. Adams reaches it and it drops right in the bucket for a completion.
A beautiful play by both Rodgers and Adams.
In this clip, Adams is in the slot field side. At the snap, he takes a couple steps forward into a shuffle with hand pumps, before breaking inside on a slant. After getting his head to Rodgers immediately after his break and not seeing a pass being thrown to him, he continues across the middle of the field then slows up in open space behind the second-level, underneath zone defenders of the cover 3. He raises his hand to signal Rodgers, and after some pocket movement, Rodgers delivers a backfoot throw that Adams jumps into a spin to high-point. Good awareness on the fly displayed.
Adams is especially dangerous in the red zone. Last year he scored 18 touchdowns in just 14 games played. He only has 1 touchdown so far this season. That’s likely to change soon. Besides his releases, one of the main reasons that Adams is so proficient in the red zone/on the goal line is due to the Packers’ creativity in how they use him, specifically by sending him in motion. This creates manufactured free releases or angle-breakers (seen in short-yardage situations) for Adams. This was the case in their game against the 49ers last Sunday.
In the 1st quarter, Adams was lined up off the line as the outermost receiver boundary side. The Packers have sent Adams across the formation with this type of motion look before (vs. the Rams in the playoffs last year comes to mind), so they broke tendency/subverted expectations with the slingshot/boomerang motion, which left Adams uncovered, jogging by himself for a wide-open touchdown catch. Fantastic design.
These two clips are near identical in play result. Adams is out wide boundary side (top of the screen) for both clips, the isolated wide receiver to that side. In both clips, he comes square post-snap (with a little skip – one of his patented releases, and also some smooth body sink), with his feet nearly aligned in-line underneath his shoulders. This puts him directly in front of the corner defending him. In the first clip, the corner attempts to jam him, but Adams swipes the attempt away. In the second clip, the corner plays a soft shoe technique, in an attempt to mirror Adams’ movement.
In both clips however, Adams angles himself towards the sideline with his right shoulder leading his movement, then he takes a speed release to the outside and up the sideline, which forces the DBs to open their hips and run with Adams. Also in both clips, Rodgers sees that the DB’s heads are turned towards the end zone and away from him, which means they won’t be able to get their head around to Rodgers/the ball as they struggle to recover positioning. So, Rodgers lofts two effortless passes to Adams’ back shoulder for two uncontested grabs. QB and WR on the same page. Pretty stuff.
Adams excels at the unorthodox in his releases. He is a master of his style of tempo, balance and body control, footwork, and hand usage. Everything he does within his releases and route running is calculated, and he makes it look so efficient, smooth, and easy (when it’s not).
The next two clips are Davante Adams fourth quarter catches (in sequential order) that led to the game-winning, 51-yard field goal from Mason Crosby. Adams is at the bottom of the screen with 37 seconds left in this first clip. The deep corner route from the #2 receiver at the bottom of the screen (point man on the line) pulls the safety backwards and towards the sideline, which allows Davante to find open space in the middle of the field behind the second-level, underneath defenders (specifically the MLB) of the 4-deep coverage on a dig route. On the other side of the field, the deep route from the outermost receiver occupies both the corner and safety to that side. Rodgers places a laser just over the fingertips of 2020 First Team All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner, and Adams exhibits his phenomenal body control to catch the pass while spinning, then quickly landing. Following the snatch, he then instantaneously looks to get up field/out of bounds to stop the clock.
In this second clip, Adams is out wide boundary side with 16 seconds left in the game. The corner defending him is doing so in a backpedal into a half-turn, side shuffling backwards so to keep Adams in front of him and not allow anything over his head. As a result, Adams breaks inside just past the 40, and Rodgers puts a throw on him. Notice how Rodgers eyed him the entire play. Adams is his go-to guy, it’s no secret.
This clip is obviously an end-of-game situation, as the Packers had 16 seconds left to work with in the fourth quarter, which is why they were utilizing an empty formation. But, if they opt to do so a decent amount against the Steelers, they could find ways to create advantageous matchups for Adams. Adams is as capable in the slot as he is outside, and if the Packers shift to empty when the Steelers have a base or nickel defense on the field, this could leave Adams covered by ILB Joe Schobert or Devin Bush.
As I have stated previously in my other WR previews, that’s a matchup that Rodgers or any other NFL QB would look to pick on. It just so happens that Rodgers and Adams are two of the best players at their respective positions, so the Steelers cannot put themselves into compromising positions/situations on Sunday, if they want to play sound defense and win the game.
Even if the Packers don’t run empty at a decent clip, with their run game being spearheaded by Aaron Jones, a current top RB in the NFL, the Steelers will likely want their best run defenders in the game on early downs and in short-yardage situations. Again, the Packers will be able to look to create advantageous matchups based on how the Steelers choose to defend them. Whether they play man or zone, personnel and alignments will determine where Aaron Rodgers goes with the football. The Packers’ RPOs stress defenders by forcing them into conflict, and Rodgers is great at knowing where he needs to go with the football given the look of the defense and said defender(s) (Rodgers will be eyeing a specific conflict defender for his post-snap read on RPOs, after making a pre-snap read of the defense).
As I stated earlier (and as Joe Haden stated to the media), the Steelers will need to constantly switch up their coverages to try and fool Rodgers, or at the very least make him work to figure out where he should go with the football. That’s also crucial late in the game. If the Steelers choose a “go-to” coverage that has worked on the day and Rodgers has seen before either in-game or during film study, he’ll be able to dial something up to pick up some yardage (likely looking to connect with Adams as I pointed out earlier). That’s how he moved the Packers down the field with no timeouts and little time remaining in the game against the 49ers.
The second to last clip shown above was a play that the Packers had been working on for 2-minute/late-game situations in meetings/practices. Hopefully the Steelers come prepared to take on Rodgers and the Packers offense this weekend. They won’t want to play checkers while Rodgers and Adams are playing chess, that will only result in a mess.
With Marquez Valdes-Scantling (the Packers #2 WR in targets thus far) ruled out this week, Rodgers will look Adams’ way early and often, as is usually the norm regardless of what pass catchers the Packers have available. However, even with MVS out, the Packers will have some other, more than capable weapons. Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard, Robert Tonyan, and of course Aaron Jones should all get their share of targets. If the Steelers’ goal is to limit Adams at all costs, one of those guys will benefit as a result. The Steelers must focus on Adams primarily, but as Steelers fans saw against the Raiders in Week 2, focus too much attention on one guy, and others can beat you.
Let me know your thoughts and comments on how the Steelers’ will match up with Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams in the comments down below. Thank yinz very much for reading!