OF­FEN­SIVE LINE

Packer Plus - - Analysis - ZACH KRUSE

Pro­tect­ing the QB will be crit­i­cal to suc­cess

Min­neapo­lis — The be­lief in the vis­it­ing locker room of U.S. Bank Sta­dium on Sun­day af­ter­noon was univer­sal. De­spite los­ing quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers to a po­ten­tially sea­son-end­ing in­jury, the Green Bay Pack­ers are con­vinced the ros­ter he’s leav­ing be­hind is ca­pa­ble of ral­ly­ing around Brett Hund­ley and sal­vaging an oth­er­wise promis­ing sea­son.

The col­lec­tive con­vic­tion won’t mean much un­less the Pack­ers can get healthy along the of­fen­sive line, and quickly.

Hund­ley did his best to man­age the ex­ten­u­at­ing cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing his first real NFL ac­tion on Sun­day. Of­fen­sive team­mates said he was calm, con­fi­dent and in con­trol, de­spite un­re­lent­ing pres­sure from the Min­nesota Vik­ings de­fense, ear-drum rat­tling noise in­side U.S. Bank Sta­dium and a game plan tai­lored specif­i­cally for Rodgers. In re­al­ity, Hund­ley never had a chance to be pro­duc­tive – es­pe­cially once three starters along the of­fen­sive line dropped out due to in­jury.

Left guard Lane Tay­lor, left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Bryan Bu­laga all left the game and didn’t re­turn. While Tay­lor likely avoided a ma­jor leg in­jury on a sack in the first half, Bakhtiari ag­gra­vated a pre-ex­ist­ing ham­string in­jury and Bu­laga suf­fered a con­cus­sion. Both start­ing tack­les de­parted in the sec­ond half and could miss ad­di­tional time.

By the fourth quar­ter, Hund­ley was try­ing to op­er­ate the Pack­ers of­fense be­hind a patch­work com­bi­na­tion of block­ers that in­cluded Justin McCray at left tackle and Ul­rick John at right tackle. Backup Lu­cas Pa­trick filled in at left guard.

The Pack­ers know the jour­ney ahead will be a dif­fi­cult one, es­pe­cially if the of­fen­sive line can’t get healthy.

“It is go­ing to be tough, but we’re all football play­ers and we’re here to do our jobs,” right guard Jahri Evans said. “It starts in prac­tice. We have to go out there, work hard, be di­aled in, and do the best that we can do. It is go­ing to be rough. We have a lot of ad­ver­sity ahead of us, but we need to step up in times like this.”

The reshuf­fled of­fen­sive line crum­bled in the face of ad­ver­sity in Min­nesota. The Vik­ings sacked Hund­ley four times, in­clud­ing once on fourth down. McCray and John were no match for de­fen­sive ends Ever­son Grif­fen, Danielle Hunter and Brian Ro­bi­son.

Coach Mike McCarthy wasn’t pleased with how all the mov­ing parts han­dled the sit­u­a­tion.

“Pro­tec­tion is a big chal­lenge. Fourth-down sack, those are the type of things I’m talk­ing about,” McCarthy said. “We weren’t as clean a num­ber of times on third down. We had some mis­takes in the area of pro­tec­tion. We def­i­nitely need to do a bet­ter job of that as we move for­ward. The tackle sit­u­a­tion was tough.”

On the fourth-down sack, Grif­fen ran right around McCray and took down Hund­ley be­fore he had a chance to com­plete his drop, set his feet and make a throw. Such is life when a backup cen­ter is play­ing left tackle. Later in the fourth quar­ter, Ro­bi­son blew past John and hit Hund­ley as he was throw­ing, cre­at­ing a game-end­ing in­ter­cep­tion from Vik­ings corner­back Trae Waynes.

“We didn’t han­dle the change in line­ups very well at all yes­ter­day,” McCarthy said Mon­day.

The Pack­ers have con­fi­dence in Hund­ley’s abil­ity, but there’s only so much a backup quar­ter­back can do with­out con­sis­tency in the pro­tec­tion.

“We have to help him out bet­ter and pro­tect him,” Evans said. “We have some film to look at to get ready for next week.”

The rally around Hund­ley has to start along the of­fen­sive line. It’s still un­clear how much time Tay­lor, Bakhtiari and Bu­laga will miss, but the Pack­ers do have the ad­van­tage of a bye week fol­low­ing Sun­day’s visit from the New Or­leans Saints. The Pack­ers could roll the dice with an­other patch­work of­fen­sive line this week in hopes of pro­duc­ing a fully healthy group com­ing out of the bye.

Hund­ley has the phys­i­cal tools and ex­pe­ri­ence in McCarthy’s of­fense to give the Pack­ers a fight­ing chance be­hind an in­tact of­fen­sive line.

“We don’t need Brett to be Aaron,” Tay­lor said. “We just need Brett to be Brett and ev­ery­one to do their job and ev­ery­thing will han­dle it­self.”

McCarthy wasn’t sure which play­ers would be ready to play Sun­day. He’ll have to make due with the play­ers he has avail­able.

“We’re go­ing to rally around this thing and have a game plan to beat the Saints. I have con­fi­dence in Brett Hund­ley,” McCarthy said. “More im­por­tantly, it’s how it all fits to­gether. We are go­ing to have strengths as an of­fense and we are go­ing to fo­cus on those, look at the matchup of the op­po­nent, and go get it.

“This is the ul­ti­mate team game, and we need to be bet­ter with the 11 peo­ple on the field that we have re­gard­less of the phase that we’re in, and ul­ti­mately that is my re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Wave af­ter wave of in­juries can ex­haust a group of play­ers, es­pe­cially when the ab­sences pile up at one po­si­tion. The Pack­ers can’t catch a break at of­fen­sive tackle, where both starters have been hurt all sea­son and sev­eral of the top back­ups – in­clud­ing Ja­son Spriggs, Kyle Murphy and Don Bar­clay — are al­ready on in­jured re­serve.

Play­ing McCray and John at the two of­fen­sive tackle po­si­tions late in the game in Min­nesota wasn’t so much a per­son­nel fail­ure as it was a last resort op­tion cre­ated by an in­jury sit­u­a­tion still trend­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion.

“I hate to go with the whole, ‘next man up’ thing, but we have a lot of next men up right now who are be­ing thrown to the wolves, so we have to weather the storm some­how, get healthy and get bet­ter,” line­backer Clay Matthews said. “There’s really noth­ing you can say about it be­cause you try to have a next man up men­tal­ity but at the same time, there’s only so many guys that can get in there.”

The Pack­ers aren’t in­ter­ested in writ­ing an obit­u­ary for the sea­son, but the of­fen­sive line knows it will bear much of the re­spon­si­bil­ity for help­ing Hund­ley re­place the most feared quar­ter­back in the NFL.

“It will take every­body,” Tay­lor said. “Some­times some peo­ple just need op­por­tu­nity and I have faith in our room and our team that we can put to­gether a good sea­son.”

DAN POW­ERS / USA TODAY NET­WORK-WIS­CON­SIN

It would help Pack­ers quar­ter­back Brett Hund­ley if he could go into his first NFL start with a a health­ier of­fen­sive line against the Saints on Sun­day.

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