Renaissance man: Bears bracing for Aaron Rodgers’ best

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 16-of-33 passes for 203 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 78.2 passer rating against the Bears at Lambeau Field in Week 15. The Packers won, 21-13 to improve Rodgers’ record against the Bears to 19-4 in games in which he started and finished. | Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Packers’ ever-dangerous QB is playing at an MVP level, with an NFL-leading 115.8 passer rating. “He’s Picasso. He’s the Michelangelo of quarterback play,” Bears DC Chuck Pagano said. Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has contained Aaron Rodgers better than most in his coaching career, but he still has felt the pain of tangling with a gifted quarterback who is better at Jeopardy! in a television studio than most of us are on our family room couch.

“His football intelligence and his IQ, and he’s such a bright guy and so cerebral — it’s just too easy. He just toys with you,” Pagano said. “He stands back there and he spends all day behind the center and he’s moving guys around to get man/zone tells — he knows what the hell you’re going to be in. He finds the matchup he wants and then he exploits it.”

The Bears’ defense actually kept Rodgers in check in Pagano’s first season as the Bears’ defensive coordinator in 2019. Rodgers threw for 203 yards and a touchdown in both, with passer ratings of 91.4 in a 10-3 victory at Soldier Field in Week 1 and 78.2 in a 21-13 victory over at Lambeau Field in Week 15.

In Pagano’s debut as Vic Fangio’s successor, in fact, the Bears’ defense forced three consecutive three-and-outs to start the season-opener at Soldier Field last year — nine plays for minus-12 yards in the first quarter.

Then, Rodgers responded with a 47-yard pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, a nine-yard pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis, a 10-yard pass to Davante Adams and an eight-yard touchdown to tight end Jimmy Graham over Bears reserve safety Deon Bush for the only touchdown in a 10-3 victory.

“Kills you at cadence,” Pagano said. “Third down comes, he says, ‘Don’t substitute. Give me a play.’ He’s listening to the play and he’s watching our sideline the whole time to see if we’re gonna sub. That’s how we got messed up [in last year’s opener]. We gave up that touchdown to Jimmy Graham because we had a sub error and that was on me, because I was late and I thought I could get one in.”

It’s not that Rodgers is infallible. But trying to beat him with substitutions at the line of scrimmage is like trying to outfox a fox.

“Especially down in the low red [zone], you can’t do it,” Pagano said. “Because he’s just looking at you and as soon as he sees you start, he runs to the line of scrimmage, gets under center, shape the ball and catches you [with 12 men on the field] and then gets these free plays. He’s got more free plays than anybody in the history of football.

“He’s just masterful at it. He’s Picasso. He’s the Michelangelo of quarterback play. I mean this guy … move the game … COVID … I don’t even want to go up there.”

At this point of his press conference Thursday, Pagano was overplaying the Aaron Rodgers respect card to the hilt, and enjoying it. But the danger is real. In his second season with head coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers has regained his MVP form this season — with 288.9 yards per game, 29 touchdowns and four interceptions, Rodgers’ league-leading 115.8 passer rating is his highest since 2011, when he won his first of two MVP awards.

When Rodgers is at this level, even good coordinators who love the challenge can end up exasperated.

“Credit Matt [LaFleur]. He’s really brilliant,” Pagano said. “He’s got a really good football mind. He does a wonderful job of self-scouting and making sure that there are no tells. Like you can walk into your guys and say, ‘OK look, when they get into this personnel group and they line up it’s 100 percent this, you can hit it, it’s 100 percent this.’ There isn’t any [of that]. So you said good coordinators struggle — average guys like the guy you’re looking at right here really, really struggles. That’s why I do a lot of praying.”

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