Matt Blanchard understands this probably won’t be your typical third NFL preseason game Saturday night.
Unlike most years when bottom-of-the-depth-chart quarterbacks spend most of the third game holding clipboards, Blanchard and rookie Brett Hundley could be in for a heavy workload if neither Aaron Rodgers nor backup Scott Tolzien suit up when the Green Bay Packers host the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field.
Historically, the third preseason game is when NFL teams will trot out their veterans for one final tune-up before packing it in until the start of the regular season, but the Packers could very well shut down Rodgers with three of his starting offensive linemen unlikely to play due to injury.
Meanwhile, Tolzien didn’t practice all week after sustaining a concussion in Sunday’s 24-19 loss at Pittsburgh.
“It’s a unique deal with this (third) preseason game,” said Blanchard, a UW-Whitewater alumnus. “The backups don’t normally get these type of reps. We have a lot of respect for Philly and their defense. Their starters are going to be playing a lot of time. It’s a good opportunity for Brett and I to get in there and see where we’re at and take advantage of it.”
On Wednesday, Rodgers said he believes he’s ready for the regular season after running 47 plays over five series in the Packers’ first two preseason games. You might think that would make for the lightest preseason of Rodgers’ career to date, but you’d be wrong.
That came in 2013, when Rodgers completed 17-of-24 passes for 237 yards over five series and 45 offensive snaps. Even last year, he played in only two preseason games.
The third game, however, has been a staple for Rodgers.
Other than two years ago when he attempted only seven passes during one series, Rodgers has played the entire first half of the third game and attempted at least 19 passes. If he sits, it could give Hundley and Blanchard the rare opportunity to take snaps against the Eagles’ starters rather than their reserve units.
“You don’t think as a third or fourth quarterback that you’re going to play a lot in the third preseason game, but that could change this week,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “They could get a lot of opportunities against some 1s and 2s out there. That’s real football.”
Eagles coach Chip Kelly hasn’t announced how long he will play his first unit, but it’s expected Philadelphia will play its regulars through the first half and possibly longer. So far, all of Hundley’s and Blanchard’s preseason work has come against third-team defenses.
Both quarterbacks have a lot at stake. Hundley is looking to cement his place on the Packers’ 53-man roster after a shaky start to the offseason program and camp. His development will take time, but coach Mike McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt are enthused about his long-term potential.
Hundley (6-foot-3, 226 pounds) possesses a lot of arm talent. What the Packers are working on is refining his throwing mechanics and footwork after he played primarily in the spread offense at UCLA.
His erratic tendencies throwing the ball made it clear he wouldn’t challenge Tolzien for the No. 2 job this season, but he seems to be settling down. Hundley’s shining moment came in the preseason opener at New England when he led the third-team offense down the field on an eight-play, 61-yard scoring drive.
Hundley and the reserves struggled more against the Steelers. All four of his second-half series ended in three-and-outs. He’s a combined 7-for-11 for 79 yards and a touchdown on 27 snaps in his two preseason appearances.
“I’m starting to get a feel for the offense,” Hundley said. “There’s still a lot of growing to do. That’s how I’m taking it. I’m still a rookie. Even though I’ve been here since May, it’s only been a couple of months to learn this offense. To be honest, most of the people in this offense, it took about a year or two to actually get this offense. I feel like I’ve come a long way in this couple months, but there’s still a lot to learn.”
Hundley only recently started to separate himself for the third-string job from Blanchard, a second-year quarterback who sat out all of last season after sustaining a concussion early in the preseason with the Carolina Panthers.
Blanchard knew he wanted to keep playing football and expected to have another chance to do so. After letting Matt Flynn walk in free agency, the Packers signed Blanchard in time for the start of their offseason program in April.
McCarthy raved about how well Blanchard threw the ball in his initial workout with the Packers. He threw the ball well this summer, but his opportunities as the No. 4 quarterback have been limited since camp started.
The moment isn’t lost on Blanchard. This is the fourth NFL camp the 6-foot-3, 223-pound quarterback has been in. He understands players clawing out a roster spot typically don’t get this type of opportunity.
Blanchard has completed 3-of-5 passes for 20 yards on his 15 snaps over three preseason series. Van Pelt agrees the Packers haven’t really seen what Hundley can do in an in-game setting yet. The sample size just hasn’t been large enough.
Suddenly, it could be.
“I think any time you get against the starters (is important),” Van Pelt said. “If you’re right now a guy who’s lower down the depth chart playing against the starting defense of the Philadelphia Eagles and you’re having success, it speaks volumes of where you are.”
Both players have impressed Rodgers with their study habits and abilities in the classroom. When the Packers cut to their final 53, however, there only will be so many spots available. The Packers kept Flynn and Tolzien behind Rodgers a year ago, but that was more the exception than the rule.
The Packers hadn’t started a season with three active quarterbacks since Flynn’s rookie season in 2008, when he beat out second-round pick Brian Brohm for the backup job. But they also haven’t cut a rookie drafted in the fifth round or higher since 2009.
Blanchard’s situation is a bit more precarious. He could be auditioning for the entire NFL as much as he is the Packers on Saturday night. He has one more season of practice-squad eligibility remaining. It’s rare for NFL teams to keep four quarterbacks on the roster, but last year’s extension to 10-man practice squads makes it not inconceivable.
Whatever the future holds, Blanchard knows he has a prime opportunity to show he belongs.
“Just a ton of excitement,” said Blanchard, a native of Lake Zurich, Ill. “Normally in these preseason games, you’re getting in for a couple series, if that. Depending on how the game plays out, I could play an entire half of football. That’s the most I’ve played in a little bit. Just totally excited. Will have a lot of friends and family at this game and it’s going to be great.”
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.
Saturday night’s game
Who: Green Bay Packers (1-1) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (2-0).
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Lambeau Field.
TV: WGBA, Channel 26.