The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Without crowd noise, NFL defenses are at the mercy of the hard count

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a master of the hard count, and he has benefited from the lack of crowd noise in opposing stadiums this season. (Tyler Kaufman/AP)
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Late on Sunday of Week 3, Aaron Rodgers glanced at the play clock high above the Superdome field as it ticked toward zero, then noticed New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis creeping toward the line of scrimmage. Davis had nearly jumped offside on the previous play, Rodgers recalled, and now he believed he could deceive Davis into a crucial mistake.

On a play such as this — third and three, deep in New Orleans territory, fourth quarter, clinging to a three-point lead — Rodgers typically would have been engulfed by the roars of 75,000-odd Louisianans. His mastery of the hard count would have been rendered useless. But nothing about 2020 is typical. Operating in near silence, Rodgers barked a false cadence. Davis crossed the line. The ball snapped. Rodgers threw to the end zone on a free play and drew a pass interference penalty that set up a game-sealing touchdown.

“Not playing with anybody in the stands makes a big difference,” Rodgers said two days later on “The Pat McAfee Show.”

Rodgers and his brethren have taken advantage of one of this atypical NFL season’s many quirks. With limited or no fans allowed in stadiums, quarterbacks have weaponized their voices like never before.

“The quarterbacks, it’s like all home games for them,” Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said.

Raucous crowds often force visiting offenses to limit communication or use a silent count. Quarterbacks this year are free to fool defenses with varied snap counts, home or away — yet another advantage for offenses in an era rife with them.

“I definitely think they’re trying to take advantage of it,” Washington defensive end Ryan Kerrigan said. “Normally for those eight home games we get each year, we’re expecting to have teams go on the silent count, and then we can work to time that up as pass rushers. Without that, teams can really utilize the hard count, really utilize cadence where you have to play things more honest as defensive linemen.”

For years, NFL teams have coveted the prototypical quarterback. Now there isn’t one.

In the pandemic NFL, offense rules. The league is witnessing a scoring boom within its years-long scoring boom. Teams have piled up 25.7 points per game, 2.3 points higher than the record set in 2013. The current gap between 2020 and 2013 is the same as the gap between 2013 and the 38th-highest scoring season ever. NFL offenses are averaging 2.3 points per possession, which means the league is approaching a point at which making a field goal means relative failure — two teams, the Packers and Las Vegas Raiders, average more than three points per drive.

The explanation for the offensive eruption is multifaceted. It is in part a continuation of recent trends and partly a result of referees having thrown fewer flags this season, particularly on holding penalties, to help keep gameplay crisp after a truncated preseason. But many in the league point to half-full or empty stadiums as a significant driver.

“The defenses really feed off the energy of the crowd,” Rodgers said in late September. “You’ve seen across the league not the same type of energy on defense. … The energy level is low, and it starts with the lack of fans in the stadium.”

The absence of crowd noise has allowed the hard count to flourish. Defenses have been flagged for offside or neutral zone infractions 34 times on third down, according to NFL Penalty Tracker, putting the league on pace for 19 more such penalties than last year. The threat of the hard count can make pass rushers a step slower off the snap, and quarterbacks have been sacked 6.2 percent of the time, down from 6.7 last season and threatening the record low of 5.8 set in 2016.

“Quarterbacks really this year are doing a good job using the hard counts,” New York Giants Coach Joe Judge said. “While that shouldn’t be something that impacts defenses across the league, it is.”

It shouldn’t because of a fundamental order that defensive linemen are taught from the first day of Pop Warner practice: Watch the ball and don’t listen to the quarterback.

“It sounds simple,” Kerrigan said. “Oh, just move when the ball moves.”

‘It’s the power voice’

Pam Johnson has an aversion to football, but at The Washington Post’s request this week she watched — and mostly listened to — a minutes-long highlight reel of Rodgers’s cadence behind center.

“Yeah,” Johnson said after about 90 seconds. “This is a growl.”

Johnson, a professional voice coach based in Wisconsin, had been asked whether she could explain why Rodgers so consistently fooled defenders, how he could command his opponent with his voice. She examined another few snaps.

“Mmmm hmmm,” Johnson said.

She watched another few clips. Green eightTEEEEN! Green eighteen! Hut!

“So what I’m hearing is, he’s got this growl,” Johnson said. “It’s the power voice.”

When wielded properly, Johnson explained, tone of voice can manipulate. Different pitches evoke different reactions and send distinct messages from speaker to listener. Those pitches originate from and vibrate in different parts of the throat, mouth and head. Control can be found at the extremes. A soft, warm tone that vibrates around bones in the skull can provide comfort.

“That’s why every pharmaceutical commercial you hear has that pitch, right about the cheekbone,” Johnson said. “They are all pitched there because that is the voice you hear in the womb. That’s Mommy. That’s safety and security. Our lizard brain reacts to it. Fascinating.”

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The guttural growl Rodgers uses — “Primal,” Johnson called it — causes a similar reaction. It comes from the chest, Johnson said, but it can present danger if not executed properly. Johnson tells students to stop if they feel any tension in their throat when attempting the power voice because it could do damage.

“You have to be really careful with it,” Johnson said. “You move it down so it’s really vibrating in your breastbone. You have to practice a lot so that you get it down there but it doesn’t sit in your throat, because then you’ll just blow out your vocal cords. … But it sounds like he is able to get his voice down in his chest.”

The way Rodgers uses his voice, Johnson said, is a rare talent and works on a deep level. When Johnson centers her voice in her chest to demonstrate for a class, she sees students physically recoil. “This is authority,” Johnson said. “This is alpha. This is, ‘You do what I tell you to do.’ ” Humans instinctively recognize it as a command to be followed.

“You don’t even have much choice,” Johnson said. “You better do what they tell you to do because they have more power.”

Fans playing defense

Rodgers is the NFL’s best at the hard count — “The king,” Kerrigan called him — but in quiet stadiums, defenders are finding out other quarterbacks possess the skill. Kerrigan said Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield constantly kept Washington’s rushers at bay with varying cadences and by using hard counts at opportune times.

“It’s more effective when they’re using it, and they’re using it more,” Kerrigan said. “You have to be aware. They know they can do it because they don’t have to worry about the noise.”

Quarterbacks’ trickery at the line doesn’t just show up when a defensive lineman crosses early. Kerrigan said the more important effect is how it keeps rushers guessing even when they don’t jump. Because defenders know a quarterback can use a hard count at any time, a quarterback who mixes cadences can slow a rush before the snap even happens. It’s one reason waiting and watching the ball can be so difficult. Defenders who can’t anticipate the snap hand a huge advantage to offensive linemen.

“If you can get a jump on the offensive lineman, just get that one step to really make him bail and get the corner on him, you know you’re putting yourself in a good position,” Kerrigan said. “When the offensive lineman knows the count, they can almost jump the count and get out a little early and make it tougher for you to get around the edge.”

Offenses understand the advantage they have, and they must work to keep it. The quiet in stadiums means a quarterback’s voice can be heard clearly on video. Teams always adjust their cadences and audibles during the season, but the changes have been more profound this year.

“You see a lot of teams changing up their communication on the line of scrimmage because of how much you can hear on TV copies and how much the microphones pick up,” Judge said.

The lack of crowd noise has hurt defenses beyond the snap count. Offenses need concentration and precision; defenses thrive on mayhem. Players and coaches believe defensive players rely on adrenaline more than those on offense, and the missing fans affect them more. The Ravens lead the league in scoring defense, and still Martindale did not see his group fully comfortable without a crowd until last week.

“We miss our fans. They are part of the defense,” Martindale said. “They’re just as big a part of the defense as the players that are playing in it.”

For defenses, missing fans is part of the season. Asked whether he had found a way to adjust to the quarterbacks barking with impunity at the line of scrimmage, Kerrigan said he had no recourse other than hope.

“You just really have to wait until the fans come back,” he said. “The sooner, the better.”