Packers Insider: Thumbs up to Brett Hundley, receivers; down to pass rush
THE BIG PICTURE
Aaron Rodgers tantalized Packers fans with a pregame throwing session, but whether he will be healthy enough to return this season could be irrelevant. With their 31-28 loss Sunday at Pittsburgh, the Packers (5-6) are two games behind the Falcons and Seahawks and one behind the Lions in the race for the NFC’s second wild card. The earliest Rodgers could return would be Week 15 at Carolina, and Green Bay can’t afford another loss before then. Next up is a winnable game Sunday against the Buccaneers (4-7) at Lambeau Field, where the Packers have lost three straight.
In a classic back-and-forth battle with each team posting impressive fourth-quarter touchdown drives, the last bit of magic belonged to Ben Roethlisberger, who needed only 17 seconds to maneuver the Steelers 35 yards and into range for Chris Boswell’s game-winning, 53-yard field goal as time expired. Disappointed Packers fans still can savor a poised Brett Hundley marching Green Bay 77 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown that tied it at 28-28 with 2:02 remaining.
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BOX SCORE: Steelers 31, Packers 28
This was Hundley’s fifth start and by now, Packers fans expected to see a payoff for the 2½ years that coach Mike McCarthy said he had invested in the young quarterback. And on this night they did. There were positive signs early, such as when Hundley found Randall Cobb all alone in a blown coverage and connected for a 39-yard touchdown. And again on the opening drive of the third quarter, when Hundley hit Davante Adams on a double move for a 55-yard score. His three TD passes were one more than his career total entering the game. Hundley struggled early in the second half, repeatedly misfiring or taking sacks, but displayed a veteran’s cool in the final quarter.
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The Packers had rediscovered their pass rush in the last two weeks, notching five sacks against the Bears and three against the Ravens. Pressuring Roethlisberger was going to be essential in slowing a passing attack featuring explosive receiver Antonio Brown, but without injured Clay Matthews (groin), the Steelers quarterback too often had all night to throw. Sacked only once, Roethlisberger completed 33 of 45 passes for 351 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions for a passer rating of 106.8.
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Wanted: Any semblance of a running game. With Ty Montgomery (ribs) and Aaron Jones (knee) still sidelined, the Packers needed to pound Jamaal Williams, Aaron Ripkowski and anyone else they could find into the line to limit Hundley’s exposure. Receivers Cobb and Trevor Davis also took turns carrying the ball, but Williams put on a show, particularly when he took a screen pass and showed good burst in rumbling for a 54-yard TD. Williams carried 21 times for 66 yards and another TD and made four receptions for 69 yards.
Much as he was showing signs of becoming a favorite target for Rodgers, Adams has been Hundley’s go-to receiver. Against Baltimore, Adams had eight catches for a team season-high 126 yards. Facing a veteran Steelers secondary, Adams sparkled again with five receptions for 82 yards and a slick 55-yard touchdown in which he juked Steelers cornerback Coty Sensabaugh. Cobb chipped in with four catches for 58 yards and his first TD since Week 4
The Packers’ offensive line has been a game of musical chairs all season. Versatile backup Justin McCray was the latest lineman battling injury, so Jason Spriggs stepped in alongside right guard Jahri Evans. With tackle David Bakhtiari and guard Lane Taylor on the left side flanking center Corey Linsley, the line had been protecting Hundley while opening up running room for the ground game. Linsley and Taylor made nice blocks on Williams’ 54-yard screen-pass TD. But pass protection became more of a problem as the game progressed. Hundley was taken down four times with five quarterback hits against a Pittsburgh defense that came in ranked second in the league in sacks.
Like the rest of the NFL, the Packers had trouble containing Steelers stars Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Brown had 10 catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Bell carried 20 times for 95 yards and caught a game-high 12 passes for 88 more. Too much firepower for an injury-depleted Packers defense.
BITS AND PIECES
» Packers linebacker Blake Martinez had a busy night: a game-high 15 tackles (12 solo), a fumble recovery and an interception.
» Cornerback Damarious Randall made his team-leading fourth interception in the first quarter, but missed much of the second half battling cramps.
» In just the second game between the two teams since Super Bowl XLV, the Packers fell to 19-16 all-time against the Steelers.
» The Packers haven’t won at Pittsburgh since 1970, when they beat the Steelers and rookie quarterback Terry Bradshaw, 20-12.
» The Packers’ inactives were Matthews, running backs Jones and Montgomery, nose tackle Kenny Clark, offensive linemen Lucas Patrick and Adam Pankey and cornerback Donatello Brown.