GREEN BAY – Brett Hundley took the snap from center and dropped back with every intention of throwing the football downfield.
It was first and 10 and the Green Bay Packers were 23 yards away from scoring on their opening possession against the Detroit Lions.
Hundley had gotten a clue that it was man-to-man coverage because safety Tavon Wilson followed tight end Lance Kendricks from the left side of the formation to the right, leaving Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson to the left.
Hundley faked the handoff to running back Aaron Jones and then turned his attention to Nelson running free down the seam after putting a move on slot cornerback Quandre Diggs that caused him to fall. Safety Glover Quin was in the middle of the field but looking the other direction. Nelson raised his arm to indicate he was wide open.
Boom. Touchdown, right?
Nope. Hundley, perhaps catching out of the corner of his eye linebacker Tamir Whitehead slipping Jones’ block, didn’t deliver the ball. He stared at Nelson but didn’t throw it, choosing instead to pull it down and run.
He was sacked for a 2-yard loss.
This was not an isolated play in the 30-17 loss to the Lions on Monday night.
A similar thing happened on the first play of the Packers’ second possession when Hundley felt a little bit of pressure from the right on first and 10 at the Packers 17-yard line. Hundley again faked to Jones – this time out of the shotgun – and waited for Kendricks to clear Diggs and linebacker Jarrad Davis, who were stationed at the hashes 5 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Kendricks broke wide open at about the 25-yard line as the two deep safeties widened out to help on Nelson, Adams and Randall Cobb.
Boom. Huge gain, right?
Nope. Instead of taking a short step to the left where he would have been protected for as long as he needed to hit Kendricks, he bailed around right tackle Bryan Bulaga and into pressure, eventually dumping off the ball to Jones for a 3-yard loss.
Had Kendricks caught the ball on the run he would have had one man to beat for a touchdown.
The Packers very well could have been up 14-7 instead of down 7-3.
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That Hundley failed to make a play that was there by fleeing the pocket two plays later and a couple more times later in the game can be interpreted several different ways.
One is that Hundley just doesn’t have the innate skill of a pocket passer and won’t be able to overcome the years of training he had in a shotgun-only, spread system at UCLA.
Another is that Hundley has been watching Aaron Rodgers escape the pocket and make big plays for so long that he’s trying too hard to emulate him and not focusing on the plays he can make being himself.
And another is that the aforementioned plays deliver hope that once coach Mike McCarthy and his staff can get Hundley to process things faster, trust his offensive line and use the pocket, the offense will take off.
Hundley isn’t one to dissect his failures in front of a pack of reporters, but it was interesting when he was asked first about imitating Rodgers and then about moving around in the pocket.
“When I’m out there, I’m myself,” Hundley said. “I never have, never will try to be Aaron.”
Then he said:
“It’s hard because, you know, Aaron’s done a great job at that when he scrambles, whether he’s in or out of the pocket. And that’s something that’s sort of learned with experience. Feeling the pocket and how it’s coming, Aaron is like the master at it.
“I’m still getting my footing doing it.”
From the receivers’ standpoint, they can tell Hundley to trust them, but they can’t tell him when to scramble and when to buy more time in the pocket. Hundley must be made aware of his poor decisions, be put in position to make the right ones and trust what he is seeing.
When the Packers face the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field, Hundley must show that he has learned something from those failures against the Lions, otherwise the Packers are just spinning their wheels with him.
“Once you watch the film and you see things like that, you know going forward, ‘All right, let me stay here just a little bit longer,’” Kendricks said. “I’m not the quarterback but, yeah, we learn from what we see on film and what we didn’t accomplish on the play that maybe we should have.”
Cobb said that discussions about staying in the pocket are between coaches and quarterback and the receivers’ job is to get open. He said it wasn’t necessary for the receivers to tell Hundley to trust his protection or his receivers because they are working on making everything work together in practice.
Still, the chemistry between quarterback and receiver is an ongoing process, but the Packers don’t have a lot of time to wait.
“We’re starting to be able to read each other,” Adams said. “I think that was the biggest thing with Aaron, having Aaron in there. We were just so good at reading each other. Aaron is one of the best at reading mannerisms of a wide receiver or a running back. He made my job easy in terms of getting the ball there on time and doing it so many times to where it started being habit and became part of our identity.
“We just have to make sure we do the same thing with Brett now.”
One thing they can hang their hat on right now are the two fourth-quarter, no-huddle scoring drives when Hundley mostly stayed in the pocket and found open receivers.
The best example was the 46-yard catch-and-run with Cobb where Hundley stood tall in the pocket and threaded the ball between Whitehead and Davis. Cobb caught the ball 10 yards down the field and broke into the clear.
On another occasion, Hundley stood in the pocket and threw a shot right between the arms of diving safety Glover Quin into the hands of Kendricks for a 21-yard gain. He hit Kendricks over the middle again for 11 yards two plays later.
The asterisk that should accompany those plays is that Detroit was only rushing four and Hundley didn’t need to do a lot of dancing in the pocket. The Bears are going to pressure him and try to make him bail out of easy reads down the field.
Hundley will need to draw on those times he did stay in the pocket.
“When we got into our flow, got into our rhythm we scored points,” Hundley said. “That’s what we have to take out of it. It’s something to learn from, good film. But at the same time, we’ve got to be able to do that in the first quarter, the second quarter, the third quarter and especially the fourth.”
And it must start Sunday.