And so begins the Packers’ new reality. Brett Hundley takes the reins for what could be the rest of the season and his first test is the suddenly competent Saints.
There’s no question he will be more comfortable with a week of practice under his belt, a chance to prepare mentally and playing in front of the home fans. But he will have a much better chance to win, if the starting tackles are able to start and finish this game. With Bryan Bulaga clearing the concussion protocol on Friday morning, it looks like he’ll be able to play–a must, since he’ll be matched up against pass rusher Cam Jordan. David Bakhtiari is equally important, since Lane Taylor is out and the left side of the line needs some stability.
The Saints team looks completely different from the one that got taken apart by the Vikings in the season opener. They’ve won three straight, including a blowout win in Carolina and a five takeaway, three defensive TD shootout over the Lions last week. With Drew Brees slowing down a bit at 38, they are more balanced than they’ve been in the past, even after jettisoning Adrian Peterson. Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara (who was on my Packers draft wish list) are going to be a handful for the Packers’ D. And Brees still can burn you, playing an offense he knows as well as Rodgers knows the Pack’s.
The Pack’s defense must rise up, beginning this week. With Morgan Burnett likely out, the unit will be without its leader. It sounds like the banged up cornerback group will get Kevin King back and he’ll likely get to cover Michael Thomas most of the day. With Davon House a question mark, Quentin Rollins on IR and Lenzy Pipkins in the concussion protocol, the Pack will have to lean on Damarious Randall and Josh Hawkins to play most of the game, dealing with the speedy Ted Ginn and Willie Snead.
They will be helped if the Packers can get a pass rush on Brees. The pass rush was missing in action against the Vikings and needs to be a major factor if the Packers are to win this game. With Ahmad Brooks likely out again, Nick Perry limited in practice and Vince Biegel not yet ready to return, the OLB group is nowhere near full strength. Don’t be surprised to see Dom Capers blitz more than he usually does, especially if it’s a rainy day, as is predicted.
On the other side of the ball, if the tackles are able to start, Hundley should have the ability to move the ball on the Saints. Expect Dennis Allen to stack his defensive unit to stop the run and force Hundley to beat him. If the Pack is unable to get production on first down, Allen will bring the blitz early and often against a banged up offensive line and an unproven signal caller. McCarthy and Hundley must devise a way to get the ball out of his hands quickly to the RBs, tight ends and Cobb over the middle.
Needless to say, the Pack has to find a way to run the football. I’d like to see Aaron Jones get the bulk of the carries, with Ty Montgomery coming in on third downs and maybe every third or fourth series. That said, don’t be surprised to see McCarthy come out of the gate passing–showing he has complete confidence in his young signal caller.
With Rodgers out, the margin for error narrows significantly. The team needs to get as healthy as possible everywhere else, needs to be near perfect on special teams and can’t afford to get into a big hole early. Hundley will be better as the weeks go by and the team has to be a bit healthier too, right?
This Saints team has shown that it’s not just a team that plays well in its comfy dome and wilts on the road. A neutral field win in London and a blowout in Carolina has shown they can excel away from home. If the Pack can spring the upset, it will be because the defense rises up and creates a couple of turnovers that tilts the game. I’m guessing the Pack keeps it close, but can’t close the deal.
Saints 24 Packers 20