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.”
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.