Before I get to my 5 Toughest list, there’s a story I want to tell you about a mistake I made as a rookie that I still think about. It happened in one of my first NFL games, and it involved Aaron Rodgers and a jumbotron.
Now that I’m in my fourth year in the league it’s interesting to think back to my first months as a rook. The adjustment from college to the NFL was no joke. Everything’s just a lot more in the NFL — more physical, more fast, more strong. But the biggest adjustment for me actually had to do with my football IQ. I suddenly had to learn a pretty sophisticated playbook in a short amount of time. At Fresno State the offense was very, very simple version of a traditional spread offense. Not in a bad way — we were trying to make it easy for Derek Carr to throw me the ball. We didn’t really have tons of route adjustments or things like that.
But in Green Bay, I found myself in this West Coast-style offense that had a lot going on, especially for wideouts. At training camp that year one of the first things they made us do was learn all the WR routes. Not just our own — but everybody’s. So if I was the X receiver, I had to know what the Y and Z receivers were doing, too. On every single play.
Eventually I learned them all. But before that, you know … mistakes were made.
It was Oct. 2, 2014, my fifth game as a Packer. We were playing the Vikings at Lambeau. Aaron called a play, and I knew — man, I just knew — that I wasn’t getting the ball. I was on the post route and Aaron didn’t like to throw the deep ball on that particular play. He always threw it to the intermediate route. A few coaches had even said to me that Aaron had thrown it to the post on that play only three times in his career.
So … you probably already know what happened.
After the snap, I was just running my guy off — just clearing him out of the way. Fifteen yards out or something, I looked up at the jumbotron — which I like to do to know where to block without having to turn my head around.
Aaron still had the ball. He was supposed to have thrown it already. But he still had it. He was tilting way back, about to throw it deep.
I was a mile from where I was supposed to be.
He tucked the ball — and he got like two yards on a scramble. Broken play. I knew I’d screwed up the second I saw him on the jumbotron. After the play, Aaron looked over at our offensive coordinator and pointed at me. He made a yanking motion with his arm — like, Take this dude off the field.
I spent the next eight plays on the sidelines.
With Aaron, the thing you learn is that his body language is very honest. If he’s happy with something you do, you know it. If he’s not, you know it.
That’s probably why, that game, I only had one catch … for 11 yards.
But you know what? It’s not really an embarrassing memory for me anymore. It’s a good lesson.
Always expect the ball.
Run your routes the same way, every play, no matter what.
And don’t, under any circumstances, assume you know what number 12 is gonna do.
That story kind of puts into perspective how much learning goes on in your first few years in the league.
And maybe more than anyone else a wide receiver is constantly learning from his opponent … from the guy who’s covering you. It’s like The Art of War — you gotta know your enemy just as well as you know yourself.
So with that in mind, here the five guys who make my job tough — and make me better at the same time.
I know people don’t usually rank guys in these things — it’s just like, Here are my top five overall. But I’m not afraid to say that Pat P is probably my No. 1 toughest corner right now.
I’ve played against him twice, and he’s just an athletic freak — I’m not really sure how else to put it. He’s a strong dude who is physical off the line of scrimmage and throughout the route, and he’s also really fast and can change direction on a dime. Usually, guys have one or the other — elite strength or elite speed and quickness. But he’s kind of the best of both worlds. I think he’s the closest in the league to being the complete package at cornerback.
We should really talk about his speed and technique, which is what he relies on most.
The quickest way from A to B is a straight line, right? Well, Pat has 4.34 speed. But he also has the ability to flip his hips and change direction so well that it allows him to take great angles and always be running in a straight line. It’s field speed. So, even if you get him turned around or get him to bite on a fake, he’s quick to recover.
Check out this play from a couple of years ago when we played the Cardinals. I’m lined up against Pat at the bottom of the screen.
There’s about three feet between us off the line. I hesitate, then make an inside move. He jumps it, and then I pivot and take off toward the sideline — but I take off too wide.
Usually, when a DB is trying to catch up to you, he’ll run to your wake because his natural instinct is to trail you so you don’t get too much separation. But Pat has so much confidence in his speed — and his ability to flip his hips and put himself in the best position to use it — that instead of trailing, he’ll anticipate where you’re going and run a straight line to that spot.
Even though I got Pat turned around and made him stumble, I took too wide of a route, and Pat took a great angle. Then he had the speed to recover. And even though I caught the ball, it ended up being incomplete because I couldn’t get two feet down inbounds. So Pat won that play.
Against Pat, you have to run a perfect route.
And even then, if you ever think you’ve got him beat, you better think again.
Xavier Rhodes and Richard Sherman
I play against Xavier twice a year, and I have a lot of respect for his game. Like Pat, he’s just a physical specimen. He’s not as good as Pat at change of direction, but he has elite speed and he’s really strong. He’s great at using his hands to reroute you — disrupting the timing of your route and getting you out of your rhythm. So if he gets a hand on you at any point, you’re in trouble.
Then you have Richard Sherman, who is a smart, instinctive corner. He’s 6′ 3″, so he has length that you don’t normally see in a cornerback. He also tracks the ball well and has great ball skills because he played receiver in college. So when the ball is in the air, he basically turns into a receiver. He’s by far one of the best in the league at picking balls off.
But the reason I’m putting Xavier and Sherman together here is because of their physicality.
When you’re running a route, timing is everything. You have an internal clock — a timer that goes off in your mind that tells you that you need to be ready for the ball — and you have to get to your spot on time. Guys like Xavier and Sherman are the best at disrupting that timing by jamming you at the line of scrimmage and keeping their hands on you throughout the route. In practice, it’s easy to get to your spots because … it’s practice. But in a game, they’re not not gonna let you take your steps. You have to adjust your internal clock.
Xavier plays a lot of off coverage, and Sherman likes to disguise his coverages, so he gives you a lot of different looks. But when they’re up on the line playing a true press, they do this thing we call a “super jam.”
What makes it different than a normal jam is that it’s not just a punch — it’s more of a lunge.
You can see here at the bottom of the screens how Xavier and Sherman give you the punch, but it’s more powerful because it’s not just a jab. They put their whole body into it.
Most guys don’t super jam because when you lunge forward, you can’t retreat. You have to stay in there and commit to it. So you have to be confident that you can deliver a strong punch and disrupt the receiver. If you whiff or give a weak punch, a good receiver will take advantage of your lunge and get a good release off the line — and then you’re basically dead.
The way I try to counter their super jam — and this isn’t a foolproof system or anything, just something that I think has worked for me a little bit — is to get the corner moving.
I don’t work up the middle on Xavier and Sherman. They’re looking to engage me and get their hands on me, so I don’t attack them. Before the snap, I have my head turned inside looking at the ball, but I keep one eye on the corner. And once the ball is snapped, I look at the corner’s shoulders. If they’re coming down, that means he’s leaning forward and I know the lunge is coming, so maybe I’ll sink back or pause at the line to keep that two or three feet of separation. This makes it more difficult for him to really connect on the super jam.
If I see his shoulders come up, I know he’s retreating and that I don’t have to worry about the jam.
This is especially tough to judge against Sherman because he likes to switch things up on you and disguise his coverage. So he’ll be up on me like he’s in press and he’ll stagger his feet like he’s getting ready to superjam me, but then he’ll retreat at the snap. Now, I have to brace myself for impact … even if it doesn’t come. Because once a guy has established that he’s physical, you have to respect it. So it’s a real chess game with Sherman.
Most guys aren’t as physical as Xavier and Sherman, so they’ll either quick jam — which is really just a jab, and most guys can’t get enough power behind it to really knock a receiver off — or fake the jam and bail. When I go against guys like this, then I can run up on them and work up the middle because I’m not worried about their strength like I am about Xavier’s or Sherman’s.
Let me show you what I’m talking about … I want you to go back up and look at those videos of Xavier and Sherman doing the super jam. Then come back down here and watch this play against Nolan Carroll from last year.
See the difference?
Nolan Carroll is just bluffing. And I knew from watching film that he was going to bluff. I knew he wasn’t going to super jam me. That’s just not in his game. So I got right up on him off the line because I know that when you get up on somebody like that, then it stops being football and it becomes real life.
I say this all the time to the young wideouts that I work with: Like, if somebody runs up on you and and they get in your face, your gut reaction will be to put your hands up like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down! Back up! Football is a game. But when somebody gets up on you like that, it becomes real life. So when I can get right up on a corner and get him to panic and shoot his hands, then I have him in a defensive position. He’s not attacking. He’s retreating. So he’s not able to disrupt my route.
That’s something you can get away with against most corners, especially smaller ones. But when you get guys like Xavier and Sherman you have to change your whole game up because they’re so strong and physical, and they also have the confidence in their speed and other abilities to get up on you and stay on you. Because once they jump on you, no matter how big or strong you are, it’s going to be tough to shake them.
Aqib Talib has never seen a pass he didn’t think he could take to the house.
He’s a ball hawk. And one of the reasons he’s able to jump routes so well is that he’ll get his hands on you when you come off the line, and then once he has a feel for where you are, he’ll take his eyes off you, rely on his hands to track you, and look back at the quarterback. It’s like he’s playing offense in the low post in basketball. He knows where the other guy is, because he can feel him, but he’s looking for the ball.
A good example is the play he made against the Cowboys earlier this year.
You can see how, off the line, he has his eyes on Dez Bryant. But as soon as Dez comes to him, Talib gets a hand on him and looks inside at the quarterback. So when Dak tries to make the back-shoulder pass, Talib is in perfect position to jump the route.
Talib is also really unpredictable. He has such a wide-ranging skill set that he can choose what he wants to rely on on any given play. Like some plays he’ll get right up on you and use his hands and his strength. Other times he’ll stay off you because he knows he has the speed to run with you. Sometimes he’ll jam you at the line, so you think he’s going to be right up on you, but then he’ll back off and just run with you. Or he’ll retreat at the snap and run with you, and then all of a sudden, when you get to the top of your route, his hands are in your chest.
I’m sure there’s some rhyme or reason to what he does and when, but however he does it, he’s really unpredictable.
He was never the biggest or the strongest guy. But when I came into the league, in 2014, Sam Shields was the heart and soul of the Packers defense. One of his biggest strengths was his technique. But when it came to Sam, it was really all about his speed.
Sam Shields could straight-up fly.
He ran like a 4.3 at his pro day when he was at Miami, and I know he has run in the 4.2’s before. I saw that speed firsthand in practice, but I also remember this one play from my rookie season against the Falcons. Julio Jones caught a pass and was just streaking down the field, untouched. And then out of nowhere, Sam comes flying in from the other side of the field and — now, we all know how fast Julio is … but Sam ran him down.
You see that!
It was like everybody was moving at one speed, and then Sam comes flying into the picture out of nowhere, just in a totally different gear. And you gotta be pretty gifted to catch up to someone like Julio in a footrace like that.
That play also gives you a little insight into how hard Sam played the game. He went undrafted in 2010, and I know that every game — and every practice — he was playing like he had something to prove. Like he was trying to make the other 31 teams sorry that they passed on him. I mean, he was like 20 yards behind Julio on that play, and he didn’t give up on it. He went all out, and he saved a touchdown … in a game where we were winning 31–7. That’s a guy with some heart right there.
A quick message to Packers fans.
I know it’s been a rough year, an up-and-down year. Losing number 12 was obviously really, really tough. But believe me when I say — I’m confident we can still continue to improve, adjust, grind and win games.
So I wanted to take a second to just say thank you — thank you for continuing to show up for us. Thank you for forgiving us on bad days and supporting us through tough spots. It’s not in the DNA of this team to give up. You’ve always had our back, and it’s one of the things that makes me proudest to be a Green Bay Packer.
Now it’s time to get back to work.