Packers host Saints for first game without Aaron Rodgers
Even with Aaron Rodgers sidelined indefinitely with a broken collarbone, the quarterbacks will be in the spotlight when the Green Bay Packers host the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
Without Rodgers, third-year pro Brett Hundley will make his first NFL start. Hundley threw three interceptions in relief of Rodgers in Sunday's 23-10 loss at Minnesota. His career passer rating of 40.9 is the lowest among quarterbacks with at least 40 career passing attempts since the start of the 2015 season. On the other hand, his passer rating of 107.3 is the highest among quarterbacks with 100-plus passing attempts over the last three preseasons.
"Just watching film from my first year, even coming out of college, I've seen such an improvement in my game," said Hundley, a fifth-round pick in 2015 from UCLA. "I'm really happy with where I'm at. There's a lot to grow, and I want to be one of the greatest to play this game, but there's a lot of growth to do. I think it was a blessing in disguise to be behind '12' for this long. I've been preparing every week for three years now, so I felt ready."
Coach Mike McCarthy, with three years invested in Hundley, is confident in his new starter as Green Bay (4-2) tries to extend its playoff streak to nine years.
"Great personality. Always has a smile on his face. He's a joy to coach, joy to work with, so that part's fun," McCarthy said. "When you look in a quarterback's eyes during the course of a game, I think the road that he rode in Minneapolis, with the adversity that he was under, the number of times he was getting hit, the number of breakdowns that occurred in the game and the way he played all the way to the final whistle, I think that's very, very encouraging. That's something that I feel great about because that's what I'm building off of. For as bad as the moments were at that particular time of the game, he just kept playing. He was playing with great energy, didn't blink. Frankly, I can't support this with statistics, but I felt like he got better. He got better in that game. That's my belief."
For the Packers, the challenge is obvious in overcoming the loss of their two-time MVP quarterback. Heightening that challenge is determining who will play on the offensive line. The Packers played the fourth quarter at Minnesota without three starters -- left guard Lane Taylor, left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Taylor (ankle and knee) sat out Wednesday's practice while Bakhtiari (hamstring) and Bulaga (concussion) were limited. Their return would bolster Hundley's chances against a defense that feasted on Detroit veteran Matthew Stafford, with five turnovers and a franchise-record three defensive touchdowns in last week's 52-38 victory.
The Saints have no such questions about their quarterback. At age 38, Drew Brees has completed 68.9 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 103.2 rating. In six career games against the Packers, Brees has topped 300 passing yards every time. His lowest output came in the most recent matchup, 2014 in New Orleans. Brees completed 27-of-32 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 44-23 rout.
Unlike Hundley, Brees can stand confidently in the pocket behind his offensive line. With left tackle Terron Armstead, who made his season debut last week following a torn labrum, and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, a Wisconsin native, Brees has been sacked only four times.
Also unlike Hundley, Brees has a reliable running game at his disposal. Veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara have combined for 762 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns as the Saints rank eighth with 4.4 yards per rushing attempt.
New Orleans' defense is on a roll, too. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has five sacks. A young secondary filled with early draft picks is coming together, too, as the Saints have given up an opponent passer rating of 56.7 during their three-game winning streak.
"We've taken the ball away. Our third-down numbers are a little better," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We're still giving up the explosives, which is something that we're working on. But I think the takeaways, I would start with that. I think we're contesting more throws and gaining more confidence outside."
The Packers are limping into this game, with a whopping 14 players on the injury report, with starters Rodgers, Taylor and safety Morgan Burnett not practicing, and cornerbacks Davon House (quad), Damarious Randall (hamstring) and Lenzy Pipkins (concussion) limited. The Saints have only two, with Armstead (shoulder) and receiver Willie Snead (hamstring) limited.