GREEN BAY – Jordy Nelson was a senior at Kansas State at the time, still four months away from joining the team he was watching on television in the NFC Championship Game. But the moment he heard the two-word phrase this week – back shoulder – he knew exactly where the conversation was headed.
“Plaxico Burress,” the Green Bay Packers wide receiver said proudly. “What, you don’t think I watch football?”
If you’re a Packers fan, you remember that game vividly – and not so fondly. While quarterback Brett Favre’s overtime interception and Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning field goal ultimately punched the New York Giants’ ticket to Super Bowl XLII, Eli Manning and Burress’ repeated use of back-shoulder throws against Packers Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris remain arguably the most indelible image from that frosty night at Lambeau Field.
Fast forward three and a half years, and the back-shoulder throw is back en vogue in Green Bay. Only now, it’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers receivers using it with laser precision.
“I don’t remember sitting in the offensive staff room and saying, ‘Gosh, we’ve got to do what the Giants did to Al Harris,’” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said Thursday. “When you install an offense, you’ve got a lot of route concepts. And as you watch the film, some things the quarterback likes, doesn’t like, throws well, doesn’t throw well, has a feel for, doesn’t have a feel for. For me, as we got going with Aaron playing for us, it seemed like he had a pretty good feel for it, and he threw the ball well. (But) I don’t remember a revelation of, ‘My god, we’ve got to go with the back shoulder, doggone it, and that’s how we’re going to make hay.’ I don’t remember that.”
But you can bet the Carolina Panthers, the Packers’ opponent Sunday in Charlotte, have watched enough film to remember that the Packers are using the play extensively and effectively. And no less authority than Harris, now with the St. Louis Rams, has an easy explanation as for why the Packers are so good at it.
"That may be the hardest route in football,” said Harris, who by unofficial count gave up nine of Burress’ 11 receptions that day for 135 of his 151 yards, not including two penalties. (Harris also refers to the play as a “stop-fade,” just as he did right after that game.)
“If you're on top, they throw it to the back. If you're down low, they throw it over the top. It's hard to defend because you don't know where the ball is. And then when you start guessing that (a back-shoulder throw) is coming, then they keep going and throw it over the top of you."
The play is really rather simple. On the stop-fade or back-shoulder play, the quarterback intentionally throws behind the receiver, allowing him to reach back and catch it while the defender keeps going. Frequently it comes on what appears to be a go route when the cornerback is playing man-to-man coverage, since the defender has to protect himself against the deep ball. That makes it almost impossible for him to recover when the receiver turns back for the ball. Both the receiver and the quarterback must read how the defender is playing the receiver and adjust accordingly.
“It’s nothing magical or nothing new. That’s been around football forever,” Packers quarterbacks coach Tom Clements said Thursday. “You basically read how the defender’s playing. If he’s playing behind, you throw it over the top; if he’s running over top, then you throw it behind him. It’s hard to stop because you’re throwing at his disadvantaged leverage. Some guys get a certain feel for it, both the receiver and the quarterback.”
For a quarterback to throw it effectively, he has to have both pinpoint accuracy and a strong enough arm to get the ball onto the receiver quickly.
“Aaron’s extremely effective with it,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He has the arm strength and accuracy to be very consistent with the throw.”
Both of Rodgers’ preseason touchdown passes to Greg Jennings were back-shoulder throws, and in last week’s 42-34 season-opening victory over New Orleans, Rodgers used it repeatedly. The first time was on a 7-yard touchdown to Jennings against second-year cornerback Patrick Robinson; two series later, Rodgers back-shouldered tight end Jermichael Finley for a 20-yard gain – with safety Roman Harper in excellent coverage – that set up the Packers’ third touchdown in as many possessions.
Rodgers and Jennings connected again on a back-shoulder throw, on the Packers’ final scoring drive near the end of the third quarter. On a second-and-6 from the Packers’ 11-yard line, Jennings ran up the right sideline against Saints cornerback Jabari Greer, who also had tight coverage – so tight that he was actually flagged for pass interference on the play.
No matter. Jennings got his hands up at the last possible second on the throw behind him toward the sideline, resulting in a 22-yard gain that jump-started a 93-yard touchdown drive.
“The ball gets on you really quick, and it’s always in a position to where you kind of have to torque your body in a little funky way where you’re not accustomed to doing that,” Jennings explained when asked how challenging the play is for a receiver. “But it’s something that when the quarterback can put it where it needs to be and in about the area that you can feel and know that it should be – which we have a pretty good one who can do that – it makes it a ton easier.”
Said Jennings later, “When you can beat defenders over the top and then implement that back-shoulder, they have to play you honest. They can’t play the back-shoulder because you’ll beat them over the top. It’s one of those things that, typically, if they defend it, it’s luck. It’s sheer luck. We do it better than a lot of teams, and with his accuracy, man, it’s almost like every ball is catchable. So just make sure we catch it.”
But for as much attention as the Packers’ use of the back-shoulder throw has been getting – NBC announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth talked about it during the game broadcast, and it was a much-discussed topic in interviews this week – Rodgers said there are two keys to making the play work. And neither has anything really to do with executing the throw itself.
For one, the play against the Saints that set up all that back-shouldering wasn’t a back-shoulder throw at all. It was on Rodgers’ fifth pass of the game – a deep ball down the left sideline to Nelson against Robinson on first-and-10 from the New Orleans’ 49-yard line against a zero blitz (a seven-man pass rush) that went for a 36-yard gain.
“I thought it was important that we started the game throwing the ball over the top to Jordy down the left sideline. Those (throws) kind of help set up the back-shoulder balls,” Rodgers said in his weekly radio appearance on ESPNMilwaukee and ESPNMadison. “It’s a weapon that when used properly, it’s tough defend. But we’re not going to use it exclusively.”
Which led to Rodgers’ second point: As effective as the throw has been lately, it would be dangerous to overuse it.
“I think the back-shoulder ball is one that you have to be careful with.” Rodgers explained. “It’s a timing route, it’s a precision throw and a precision route as far as the receiver not giving away that the ball is coming on the back shoulder. That’s as important as the throw and the spot. But I think you have to guard against going to it too often.
“I threw an interception last year against Miami on a ball that probably should have been an over-the-top ball to James Jones on the far sideline away from our bench. And the corner was expecting a back-shoulder ball. He kind of squeezed James to the sideline, (knew) the ball was coming back shoulder. So I think you have to guard against going to it too often.”
But when they do go to it …
“It’s impossible,” Nelson said with a smile. “If (the cornerbacks) play their technique correctly and have you covered, they can’t cover the back shoulder. Because if they’re above you, you throw it behind them. If they’re behind you, you throw it above them.
“If all you did all the time was back shoulder, back shoulder, back shoulder, well, the DB is going to be sitting on it. But if we’re able to continually get on top, throw it deep, beat ‘em deep, and then throw some back shoulder – mix ‘em – then honestly, the back shoulder is pretty much impossible to cover.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.