From video game to reality: Jets’ Sauce Gardner faces Aaron Rodgers

GREEN BAY, Wis. — When Sauce Gardner played Madden growing up, the team he often used was the Packers because he wanted Aaron Rodgers to be his quarterback.

Now, the rookie cornerback will face the real Packers and try to eliminate the real Rodgers for the Jets on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

“It’s a blessing first and foremost to be able to face someone like him,” Gardner told Newsday. “In reality, it doesn’t matter that I am a rookie, I can be on the same ground as him. I still have to take the same approach that I took every other week.

Gardner, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, quickly made an impact for the Jets (3-2). He is tied for fourth in the NFL with six passes defended. Last week, he forced a safety on a blitz and recorded his first NFL interception.

The Packers (3-2) are without star receiver Davante Adams, but Rodgers was the league MVP the previous two seasons. He will be the best quarterback Gardner has faced.

Gardner said he did additional video work on Rodgers and got advice from teammates who had played against him before.

Robert Saleh told Gardner to expect Rodgers to “test you” and “be alert” because even if his coverage is great, Rodgers will find a “hole”.

Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich told Gardner and all of his players that Rodgers is “very hard to fool.” He emphasized the importance of their pre-snap position and their body posture, because Rodgers has seen it all.

“If he knows the story when the ball is gone,” Ulbrich said, “it can be a long day for you.”

Gardner saw this on video.

“Some defenses are trying to show one thing and he already knows what they’re going to do when the center snaps the ball,” Gardner said. “He’s a very smart quarterback. I just have to protect my man as best I can. The game is never over because he can play games with his feet. He can scramble and throw and he will also get the ball there.

The Jets paid tribute to Rodgers, but they’re not impressed with him or the Packers, who don’t look like the same team that won 13 games in each of the previous three seasons.

This is a statement game for the Jets. They are confident that their two-game winning streak is no fluke.

“It’s a big game mainly because he’s our next opponent,” linebacker CJ Mosley said, “but we also have a chance to really make a statement. Go to Lambeau, historic stadium, large base of supporters, face a great team with great coaches.

The Jets are one of the surprise teams in the NFL along with the Giants 4-1, who beat the Packers last week in London.

The Jets will face history on Sunday. Coming off a loss, the Packers are 9-0 under coach Matt LaFleur. In those games, Rodgers threw for 2,601 yards, 24 touchdowns and one interception. Green Bay has also won 15 straight games at Lambeau.

“I expect this typical stretch to come at a time when we’re getting really hot,” Rodgers said. “Hopefully it starts this week, but I think it’s just around the corner.”

The Jets are 2-0 since Zach Wilson returned from a knee injury. He will try to outplay the quarterback he most modeled his game on. History favors Rodgers, which is why Ulbrich’s defense must find ways to make him uncomfortable.

Ulbrich watched video of five Packers-49ers games over the past three years to see how San Francisco attacked LaFleur’s offense (the 49ers won three of those matchups). He found “some strong indicators” there. San Francisco runs a variation of Saleh’s system with many of the same defensive concepts as the Jets.

Additionally, Ulbrich said dealing with the Jets’ offense helps because their system is similar to Green Bay’s. The Jets’ offensive coordinator is Mike LaFleur, Matt’s younger brother.

“There’s tremendous value in going against our offense,” Ulbrich said, “because there are similarities schematically in how they use players, how they use guys with certain traits. There has an advantage to that from our perspective that we go against that style of attack, we have so many reps in the bank, so much time on task.

Limiting explosive plays by running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon will be key for the Jets. Their run defense allowed Miami 137 yards last week and Cleveland 184 when they faced a two-headed backfield of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

“We need to define edges more consistently, our pursuit from the back needs to be better, our gap discipline needs to improve,” Ulbrich said. “If their running game rolls, then their game-action game rolls, their drop game, their fast game, it’s all alive, and when it’s all alive with these guys, it can be tough, it can be a challenge. Trying to eliminate a component of the offense helps.

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