Week Six became an official week of mourning in Wisconsin when Aaron Rodgers went down and out with a broken collarbone. The expectation is that Rodgers will miss the rest of the season.
I don’t intend to chronicle every major injury that occurs during the season, but a few weeks ago when Houston lost J.J. Watt for the season, I pointed out that his loss went beyond his on the field contributions. The same is true for Rodgers. Like Watt, he was the face of his franchise and one of the marquee faces of the NFL. Any team that loses its starting quarterback faces a long season. When that quarterback is, arguably, the best in the game, it casts a pretty long shadow over the rest of your season.
I fully believe everyone in the Green Bay organization completely understands the magnitude of this loss. To their credit, they are not whining or looking back. They have saddled up the new man and expect to win games with him. It was evident in the post-game press conference (after last week’s 26-17 loss to New Orleans[gamebook]) that Head Coach Mike McCarthy truly expected his team to win that game. One of the best signs to come out of the New Orleans game is the resolve of the coaching staff. This will not be a lost season. It was also heart-warming to watch the Green Bay faithful embrace the new guy. There is another very interesting development to come out of this game. But first let’s introduce the new guy.
Let the Brett Hundley Era Begin
Drafted in the fifth round (#147 overall) in 2015 out of UCLA, Brett Hundley started for the Bruins in his freshman year. After three seasons at the Bruin helm, Brett passed on his senior season to enter the draft. In 1241 college passes, he completed 67.4% of them for almost 10,000 yards (9,966 to be exact), a 75-25 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and a 150.8 passer rating.
He also ran for 30 touchdowns (in 40 games) and caught a touchdown pass – so Brett has some tools.
Before this season, he had only appeared in four games, completing just 2 of 10 passes with an interception. This season he appeared in the end of the Week Four victory over Chicago, completing his only pass for 0 yards. Then, a week ago Sunday, he saw his first extended action in the NFL against Minnesota. The results were less than inspiring (18 of 33 for just 157 yards with 3 interceptions).
Making his first start, Brett led the Packers on touchdown drives in two of his first four possessions last Sunday. Halfway through the second period, Green Bay led 14-7.
It was downhill after that – and ultimately there wasn’t enough production from Brett and the passing game. The first half ended without a completed pass to either of Green Bay’s top two receivers (Jordy Nelson or Davante Adams), and Hundley finished the day 12 of 25 for just 87 yards, with no completion longer than 14 yards.
But alongside Hundley’s growing pains was another very interesting development. The resuscitation of the Packer running game.
Yes, That Was the Packers with 181 Rushing Yards
Last year’s 10-6 team ranked only twentieth in rushing, and didn’t crack the 100-yard mark in any of their playoff games. They had no runner that managed even 500 yards for the season. The last Packer team to have any real commitment to the run was the 2014 team, led by their last 1,000-yards rusher, Eddie Lacy (that team went 12-4, losing the NFC Championship Game to Seattle in overtime). When you have a passer like Rodgers, it’s hard to commit strongly to the run.
But now, with one Aaron on the shelf, the Packers have to run the ball. And Sunday afternoon a new Aaron emerged.
Hello Aaron Jones
The Packer’s fifth-round draft pick this year was invested in running back Aaron Jones from UTEP. Like Brett, Aaron skipped his senior year after 35 college games and 4,114 rushing yards (a 6.3 average per carry). He ran for 33 touchdowns and caught passes for 7 more. He first came to the nation’s attention when he chalked up 125 yards in a Week Five win in Dallas. But Sunday was his coming out party as well. In his first game as the centerpiece of the offense, Jones showed great burst and finished with 131 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
With 44 yards from Hundley, the Packers piled up 180 rushing yards through the first three quarters. But the passing game’s inability to convert those yards into points forced Green Bay to shelve the run game in the fourth quarter.
Heroes on the Line
But while Jones was good and Hundley had his moments, the revelation of this game was Green Bay’s offensive line. Mostly recognized only as the big guys protecting Rodgers, this group has been generally under-appreciated. Right guard Jahri Evans has been named to 6 Pro Bowls, but the rest of the group has combined for only one such honor (David Bakhtiari last season).
Given, now, the chance to run the ball as the main cog of the offense, the entire line – including the less recognized Brian Bulaga (RT) and Corey Linsley (C) showed that they could possibly be a dominant run-blocking line. Particularly impressive, I thought, was left guard Justin McCray. Undrafted out of Central Florida, the rookie lineman opened large holes in the middle of the Saint defense, and pulled with great authority. In the long run, his emergence might be as important as any on an otherwise disappointing day in Green Bay.
Also worthy of note is tight end Martellus Bennett. Not the most enthusiastic blocking tight end I’ve ever seen, Bennett is, nonetheless, quite effective. On most of the productive running plays, it was Bennett who was neutralizing New Orleans’ star defensive lineman Cameron Jordan – including Jones’ two longest runs of the afternoon (his 46-yard touchdown sprint in the first quarter, and his 21-yard run around right end in the third). On that last run, Bennett was one of three tight-ends on the right side and was pivotal in opening up the sideline for Jones.
Bennett also threw my favorite block of the game. On the play before the 21-yard run, Martellus lined up on the left side and tossed DE Trey Hendrickson to the ground like he was a stuffed animal. Bennett is an excellent receiving tight end – and apparently a better blocker than people may realize.
For this to have much meaning, Hundley and the passing game will have to gain enough effectiveness to allow the running game to pound people for the full four quarters. But if Green Bay can mount a top-ten running game to go with the air attack once Rodgers gets back, this could bode very well, indeed, for the Packer future.
Meanwhile in New Orleans
The flip side of this story isn’t so rosy for the Saints, who won the game but were pushed around in the run game again. Now allowing 114.2 rush yards a game (dropping them to twentieth in the league), and now allowing 4.9 yards per rush (ranking them thirtieth out of thirty-two teams), run defense remains a persistent shortcoming for this team. In the six games they’ve played so far, only the Dolphins and the Lions have failed to run for at least 119 yards against them (and neither of those teams tried very hard).
In watching them play, it doesn’t look like a problem that will just go away. The two inside linebackers, Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein are much better in coverage. Against the run, neither shows great instinct. Neither distinguished himself as a tackler, either. Starting right defensive end Alex Okafor is very quick on the pass rush, but is undersized and a liability against the run. By the second half, Hendrickson was playing in his place on running downs – with only marginal improvements.
As long as the offense can put points on the board and force other teams to keep throwing the ball, the Saint defense should hold up pretty well. But, eventually, this will rise up and bite them.