The NFL’s hit men: Packers’ Rodgers, 49ers’ Smith taking shots
November 18, 2009
SANTA CLARA – Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers spend a lot of time on their backsides, each having taken his share of hits this season.
Rodgers, Green Bay’s quarterback, has been sacked 41 times. For San Francisco’s Smith, it’s been 10 sacks in the 3 1/2 games he’s played since taking over from Shaun Hill last month. In all, the two former first-rounders who got to know each other well when they were drafted in 2005 have been sacked a combined 175 times in their young careers.
Who would blame these two if they’re a little sore at this stage of the grueling NFL season? They know the quarterback who can stay upright come Sunday when the 49ers play the Packers at Lambeau Field could have a big advantage.
“I have a good massage therapist and a great training staff that takes good care of me,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “I feel like I take good care of myself pretty well and try to work out and eat well. But this time in the season, everybody has bumps and bruises. You just have to learn to deal with the pain and play through it.”
While 49ers linebacker Manny Lawson can appreciate Rodgers’ willingness to take a hit for his team, calling him an “unselfish player,” he said San Francisco’s defense also sees it as a big opportunity. Rodgers holds on to the ball a little longer than most.
“We just have to hurry up and get to him,” Lawson said. “He’s holding the ball for a reason, because a play’s about to open up downfield.”
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Neither the Niners nor the Packers have been especially strong in the sack department. San Francisco has 17 sacks – the Niners tied for 16th in the NFL with 30 sacks last season – and Green Bay has 18.
Those are the numbers people notice, not taking into account how much pressure a quarterback faces snap after snap.
“Whenever you look at making strides, you also look at numbers,” Lawson said. “We all want more sacks. I think we can get more. When the opportunity presents itself, we have to take advantage of it.”
When it comes to game-planning for Rodgers, 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky knows there will be opportunities for sacks. But more importantly, he wants his unit to focus on doing the little things that will allow the Niners to regularly wreak havoc on Rodgers and Green Bay’s susceptible offensive line.
San Francisco (4-5) had five interceptions against Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler in a 10-6 win over the Bears last Thursday night.
“I always say: ‘Do you want interceptions? Do you want sacks? What do you really want from a defense?”‘ Manusky said. “Last week we had opportunities to hit Cutler, which we did. He released the ball and we made some good plays on it. I think it is give and take. I’d like to have five sacks and five interceptions, but sometimes you just get one or the other and that is just as good.”
Rodgers and Smith have pulled for each other over the years, staying in touch from time to time. Neither one wants to see the other get flattened game after game.
Smith’s first college start for Utah was against Rodgers and the Golden Bears. Smith recalls people mistaking him for Rodgers, too.
“People always thought we looked alike,” Smith said. “I obviously followed his career and then when we came out, going to all the end-of-college awards stuff and then into the draft process, I was around him quite a bit. I always liked Aaron. He’s always been a good guy to me.”
Rodgers, for one, sure hopes to avoid being knocked around.
He would like nothing more than to shine against the team he grew up cheering for in Northern California and hoped would draft him out of Cal. Instead, San Francisco chose Smith. Surprisingly, Rodgers fell to the Packers with the 24th overall pick in one of the biggest stories of that draft.
There are no hard feelings on Rodgers’ end.
“I think I was supposed to get picked by Green Bay and go through the experiences I went through here and be the guy here now,” he said, refusing to speculate on whether he believes he might have played sooner in San Francisco. “I just like to focus on stuff that’s real and what happened, happened. I got picked by Green Bay and got to sit and learn and study the game and then got my chance last year and have been the starter ever since. The hypothetical stuff, I don’t feel like that serves a lot of purpose.”
Rodgers and Smith have taken vastly different roads to this point, with Smith getting thrown into the mix right away to begin what so far has been an up-and-down professional career. Rodgers, meanwhile, waited his turn behind Brett Favre and watched and learned until finally getting his shot to start last season.
Smith has endured two surgeries and five offensive coordinators. He missed all of last season after re-injuring his surgically repaired right shoulder two days before the season opener.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has said in previous interviews that the Niners made a mistake by rushing Smith into action so early. He reiterated that thought Wednesday, but without specifically naming Smith.
“If you’re going to play a young quarterback early, the most important variable is: Is your football team ready for that?” McCarthy said. “The young quarterback is not ready. It’s fairly obvious that it’s not really possible to get a young man ready to endure an NFL season coming out of college. … If you’re trying to benefit a young QB, it helps to sit and let him watch.”