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,’’ Pagano said. ‘‘He just toys with you. 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, then he exploits it.”
The Bears’ defense actually kept Rodgers in check in Pagano’s first season as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2019. Rodgers threw for 203 yards and a touchdown in both, with passer ratings of 91.4 in the Packers’ 10-3 victory at Soldier Field in Week 1 and 78.2 in Green Bay’s 21-13 victory 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 at Soldier Field — 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 pass to tight end Jimmy Graham over Bears reserve safety Deon Bush for the only touchdown in Green Bay’s 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, snaps the ball and catches you [with 12 men on the field] and 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 Zoom news conference Thursday, Pagano was overplaying the Rodgers respect card to the hilt and enjoying it. But the danger is real.
In his second season with coach Matt LaFleur — after his pairing with former Packers coach Mike McCarthy grew stale — Rodgers has regained his MVP form. With 288.9 yards per game, 29 touchdown passes and four interceptions, he has a league-leading 115.8 passer rating, 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 [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 up to your guys and say, ‘OK, look, when they get into this personnel group and they line up, it’s 100% this. You can hit it, it’s 100% 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 struggle. That’s why I do a lot of praying.”