On Sunday night, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers will go head-to-head in a highly anticipated and rare matchup between two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. At The MMQB this week, we’ve looked back at their parallel, improbable rises to the top of the sport, and debated who’s better while marveling at their unique playing styles.
Antrel Rolle is familiar with both quarterbacks. The long-time NFL defensive back was a key member of the 2011 New York Giants defense that beat Rodgers at Lambeau Field in the divisional round of that year’s playoffs, then beat Brady three weeks later to capture Super Bowl XLVI. Rolle shared his thoughts on the two greats, and how the Giants beat them both…
CONOR ORR: You had to beat both these guys in that Super Bowl run. How did you do it?
ANTREL ROLLE: Let’s talk about Aaron Rodgers first. When I was in Arizona [where Rolle played the first five years of his career], he scared the living s--- out of me because there was no way we could stop him. We had a guy, Bryant McFadden, who was playing corner and I think he threw three touchdowns on him alone, and McFadden was playing exceptional in coverage. But the way Aaron placed the ball, the only person who could get it was his wide receivers. He’s that talented of a guy. He’s versatile. He can beat you with his legs, his arms. He doesn’t look to run, he scrambles to complete the ball downfield and make all those acrobatic throws.
In order for us to beat him in the playoffs, we had to take away his primary weapon. After watching the film, it was Greg Jennings. So that was my task—disrupt Greg Jennings and take away Aaron’s first read. Make him as annoyed as possible the entire game. Being that I was a press guy, I moved to the slot the last two games of the season, but to take Greg Jennings out of the game I was physical with him. If there were 65 plays in a game, I was physical with him on 64. I put my hands on him as much as possible.
As a defensive backfield, we were in sync. We trusted the guy alongside of us. It was hard for Aaron to complete any throws that night. I’ve never seen a team dominate him the way we did that night. [Rodgers was 26-for-46 for 264 yards, two TDs, an interception, lost a fumble and took four sacks.] We had our defensive linemen, man, they had their ears pinned back and they were coming.
Against Aaron Rodgers, we wanted to blitz and force him up in the pocket because we knew he didn’t like to stay in the pocket. We knew he liked to get outside the pocket and extend plays. We knew he was better at completing passes and throwing on the run.
ORR: How did you know he hated going to his second read?
ROLLE: Aaron is a guy used to controlling the game and he’s been in control his entire career. No one has really been able to stop him from doing whatever he wants to do. The guy is that good. He’s the most talented quarterback I’ve ever faced in my life in terms of accuracy and throws and understanding defenses. He’s a smart guy with all the tools. So once we took his first read away, by the time he went to his second read, those guys were coming. We had a serious D-line rotation going on. There is no good defense without a front four, and we held up our own on the back end.
ORR: How do you pass off coverage on faith against Aaron Rodgers?
ROLLE: You have everyone in sync. That was a huge part of my message before entering the playoffs. We need everyone on the field. We need everyone at practice. If you don’t have all your guys out there with you, you’re not going to know how he’s thinking about Aaron. In order for you to know what your guys are thinking without even looking at him, or to know where he’s gonna be, you have to be experienced with that guy. You have to know how he’s going to play every single route.
We were in sync and it just looked so good. We had the field covered, so there was nowhere for Aaron to go. Our defensive coordinator, Perry Fewell, believed in us, trusted us. We allowed him to call anything in the world that he wanted to call. When he was allowed to be creative, he was one of the best defensive coordinators I’ve ever been around. He had a perfect game plan for Atlanta, San Francisco, Green Bay and New England. He had the perfect plan for all of them. And they were huge game plans. Oh my God. The most lengthy game plans I’ve ever been a part of.
ORR: What kind of coverage is it? Press man?
ROLLE: Yeah, absolutely. Press man was the best way to play those guys. You can play a press, kind of a Cover 2 shell, like a two-man underneath but also passing off zones. We played what was called 44 coverage. A two-man that would deny all underneath routes, so everything they had to do was gonna be outside routes. We kept the middle of the field closed.
ORR: Three weeks later you faced Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. How was that game plan different?
ROLLE: The plan for the Patriots is, our defensive line first. Those guys were a force to be reckoned with. We couldn’t let [Rob] Gronkowki get off, and take away Wes Welker, who was my assignment. I made sure it was a long night for him. Anyone who saw him made sure he had a long night. The thing that worked best for Tom Brady was the pass rush and our linebackers in coverage played great. On the back end, the corners just had to hold up, and the safeties, we inserted a three-safety look. We each learned each others’ positions the whole week and we made ourselves versatile to the point where Brady couldn’t identify who would be the nickel, who would be the rover and who was the free safety.
ORR: So you switch so he can’t identify what kind of defense it is, basically?
ROLLE: Absolutely. And we made sure we stayed stationary so if someone motioned, Deon Grant would take my position and I’d just take his. If they motioned the other way, Kenny Phillips would take the other position and I’d take his. We stayed stationary. We didn’t run with the motion, so he couldn’t tell if we were in man or zone. He couldn’t tell what we were in. You’re not really gonna fool Tom Brady, although I think we did. He knows what you’re gonna be in, he studies so much.
ORR: So you said Aaron Rodgers was the most talented quarterback you ever played against. What does that make Tom Brady?
ROLLE: Aaron was the most talented quarterback I’ve ever played against. I will say that Tom Brady was the best quarterback I played against. The simple fact is, [Brady] has a different “it” factor. He has that Michael Jordan s---. He wants to kill you. He wants to dominate you every play. I’m not saying other guys don’t, but he’s done it without the most talented receivers, the no-name guys. He makes that system work no matter who is back there. No matter who is catching the ball. Five Super Bowls, it doesn’t get any better than that. He should go down as the best quarterback to ever play the game.
ORR: So you’re lined up and looking into the backfield. Who is scarier to see on the other side?
ROLLE: Ahh. I would say it depends on the moment and who is on your team. If you have a great defense like we had, I think the guy you’re gonna fear most is… O.K., put it this way: If you know your guys are gonna be on their assignments and keys, the guy you’ll fear the most is Tom Brady. I think he just has a way to keep going. Aaron Rodgers, not saying he doesn’t keep going, but he doesn’t have the same drive as a Tom Brady in my opinion. It was easier to knock the fight out of Rodgers than it was to knock it out of Brady.
ORR: When you knock the fight out of a guy, you can feel that? You know they’re done?
ROLLE: Right. That’s something I felt throughout the course of the game. Well, sometimes. When I played Aaron and I was in Arizona [in a 2009 Wild-Card game], we had them down 14 points coming out of the half, and this guy is coming out of halftime with a smirk on his face. I’m like, what the f--- is this dude smirking about? He’s down. And oh my God, he torched us. He completely torched us. If he brought that side out every single time I played him, it would be no comparison.
• Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.