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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Aaron Rodgers and the great back-shoulder fade

The back-shoulder fade is one of the many throws that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers makes look easy.

Rodgers is one of the great arm-talent quarterbacks ever to play, up there with Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Dan Marino, John Elway and Brett Favre. Throw whoever else you want into that subjective class. Rodgers' quick release, arm strength and anticipation rank with those Hall of Famers.

Those traits also make him arguably the best in the league at the back-shoulder fade to the sideline. It's something to watch for when the Packers face the Bills Sunday at Lambeau Field.

If the receiver and quarterback are on the same page, it's an especially hard play to defend because a defensive back's first priority is to prevent the pass "over the top" (deep down the sideline).

"Especially at No. 1, you want to be on top of a go ball," said Bills safety Micah Hyde, referring to the far outside receiver on either side of the formation. "You've got to try to make him throw that back-shoulder pass. It's a harder throw. You can't play underneath hoping they'll throw it, because then they'll throw it over the top and take the top off the defense. You just have to play on top and from there try to get to his body and not allow the throw."

"What makes it tough, it's just the accuracy that he has," Hyde said, referring to Rodgers.

The Bills like the back-shoulder throw to Kelvin Benjamin, because at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, his size allows him to box out the cornerback. New England's Tom Brady throws it often in the red zone to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Likewise, Rodgers will throw it to his tight end, Jimmy Graham.

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It's an option route. If the receiver knows he's not beating the defensive back down the sideline, he has to come back for the back-shoulder throw. But the receiver can't make it look obvious.

"The DB's always afraid of getting beat," said Bills QB Nathan Peterman. "So if the receiver is still going full-speed, that's a big part of it. It's all reactionary. It's feel, it's timing. It's tough for receivers because sometimes they know a back-shoulder should come because the DB is on top of me. But they have to keep running. … Obviously, the Packers have worked it so much, you can tell that's why they're so successful at it."

Another key for the receiver is to get off the jam at the line of scrimmage and not get forced too close to the sideline. That gives the QB less room to make the throw and creates more chance for a cornerback to react to the ball.

"Obviously that's what the DBs are trying to do, they're trying to widen the receiver because the sideline is like another defender," Peterman said. "That's why we paint the blue line on the field in practice and try to tell the receivers to save space. I think everybody coaches receivers to do that. That's important. But I've seen Aaron Rodgers even hit it when the receiver is close to the sideline. It's pretty impressive."

The 30,000-foot view: Bills fans would have no complaints about the Packers' run with Aaron Rodgers. The Pack had eight straight playoff seasons from 2009 to 2016 and won the Super Bowl in the 2010 season.

However, that's the only Super Bowl Green Bay has made in Rodgers' great 10-year run. You'd like to think you'd have another one or two Super Bowl appearances (and wins) with one of the all-time great QBs in his prime.

The Pack has not done a good enough job building a defense around its QB. In the past five years the Green Bay defense has ranked 22nd, 22nd, 15th, 15th and 25th. And while the Pack has done a good job drafting and building from within, former general manager Ted Thompson probably adhered to that "homegrown" philosophy to a fault. In the past seven years, the Pack should have made a few more moves to bring in cornerback help, in particular, via free agency or trades.

Look at some of the Packers' playoff losses: gave up 37 points and 330 passing yards to Eli Manning as a 15-1 No. 1 seed in 2011; gave up 579 yards and 45 points to the 49ers in 2012; gave up 325 passing yards to Colin Kaepernick in 2013; gave up 349 yards to Arizona's Carson Palmer in 2015; gave up 392 yards and 44 points to the Falcons in 2016.

Over the past 10 seasons, the Packers' average defensive ranking in points allowed is 15.7.

In Jim Kelly's last 10 seasons, the Bills' average defensive ranking: 11.6.

In Tom Brady's last 10 seasons, the Pats' average defensive ranking: 7.9.

New Packers GM Brian Gutenkunst did more this offseason to try to build the defense. It's about time.

Weak link: The Packers are not especially strong on the offensive line. But a surprising weak link so far is the safety tandem of Kentrell Brice and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The undrafted Brice, a first-year starter, is partly responsible for TDs of 75 yards to Stefon Diggs and 46 yards to Paul Richardson the past two weeks. He doesn't track the ball especially well. Clinton Dix was a first-round pick out of Alabama in 2014. After a good year in 2016, he slumped to a mediocre season last year. He's not off to a great start. The Bills should keep attacking downfield, as they did (unsuccessfully) last week.

Matchup Watch

DT Frank Clark vs. Bills' middle three. Clark is blossoming in his third season after being a first-round pick out of California in 2016. He's the Packers' best defensive player and will be a challenge for center Russell Bodine or the Bills' guards. The 313-pounder still is only 22. He had 4.5 sacks in the last month of last season. Against the Redskins last week, he had the primary stop on eight carries of 3 yards or fewer.

WR Randall Cobb vs. CB Taron Johnson. The receiver position is pretty good but not as good as it used to be. Slot receiver Randall Cobb is only 28 but has taken a lot of hits and doesn't separate like a few years ago. He's coming off a poor game at Washington, where he had three drops and lost a fumble. Cobb normally is sure-handed and the slot receiver is key for the Pack to keep the chains moving. Johnson looked good last week in Minnesota.

The Packers' middle three vs. the Bills DTs. The Packers' offensive line gave up four sacks and committed four holding penalties last week. Left guard Lane Taylor gave up two sacks. Right guard Justin McCray gave up one and is dealing with a shoulder injury. He was replaced by Lucas Patrick, who faltered and then was replaced by Byron Bell. Center Corey Linsley was shaky last season but is off to a decent start. The Bills must win the interior of the line to make Rodgers' attack one-dimensional.

Stats for the road: Rodgers took 69 snaps last week and 68 were out of the shotgun or pistol. The Packers are even more married to the spread than ever with the QB operating on a sore knee.

Rodgers said after the Washington loss: "We've got to run the ball better to start some of the (play) action stuff."

The Pack has not run well or often out of two tight ends (just 3.4 a carry on first downs). Rodgers has averaged a pedestrian 6.4 yards per attempt on play action since 2015, according to Football Outsiders.

Look for them to try to get running back Aaron Jones going.

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