Rolling left more could be right move for Packers QB Brett Hundley
GREEN BAY – It was Brett Hundley’s first pass Sunday night, and it didn’t go far. Just a 5-yard completion, it was forgettable in a game the Green Bay Packers quarterback hit touchdown passes of 55 and 39 yards, the two longest in his career.
But there was something about Hundley running left, evading Pittsburgh Steelers rookie rusher T.J. Watt and completing a pass that looked unusual. And for good reason.
Since replacing Aaron Rodgers, Hundley has thrown 35 passes outside the pocket. Just four were thrown running to the left.
The 5-yarder to receiver Davante Adams was only Hundley’s second completion going left.
“We didn’t hit a home-run shot or anything like that,” Adams said. “I think it could’ve worked to either side, but it does help to break tendencies sometimes. It’s still good to put that on film and keep them honest.”
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The Packers teach their quarterbacks to be ambidextrous when exiting the pocket, assistant coach Alex Van Pelt said. Right-handed quarterbacks will roll or scramble to their right more often, because it’s their natural side. But, Van Pelt said, it’s important to be comfortable exiting the pocket in either direction.
Rodgers does it better than anybody. In six starts this season, the two-time MVP threw 25 passes outside the pocket. Seventeen came while running to his right, with eight to the left.
Van Pelt said Hundley is comfortable throwing while running to his left. Data suggests otherwise. While Rodgers exited left on 32 percent of his passes outside the pocket in six starts, Hundley exited left on 11 percent.
Before his first pass in Pittsburgh, Hundley’s last completion while running left was a 19-yard pass to Adams with 71 seconds left at Minnesota. That was six weeks earlier.
It can be dangerous for quarterbacks to rely too heavily on flushing the pocket in one direction. Cornerback Davon House remembers playing against former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder. House said Ponder was unable to roll left.
Ponder's predictability made it easy to know which defenses would give him the most trouble.
“He only rolled out one way,” House said. “So you could call blitzes to that side, because that’s the only side he’s going to roll out.”
The Packers, probably more than any team in the league, get big-chunk plays with passes outside the pocket. It helps to have Rodgers behind center. He’s a magician while extending plays, capable of hitting long passes while rolling to either side.
Some of Rodgers’ most memorable passes outside the pocket, including a game-winning completion to tight end Jared Cook in a playoff game at Dallas last January, have come after he flushes left.
Comparisons to Rodgers are unfair, especially when it comes to passing outside the pocket. Perhaps a more accurate measurement is this weekend’s visiting quarterback, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter Jameis Winston.
Winston was the No. 1 overall pick in 2015, the same year the Packers drafted Hundley in the fifth round, but has not produced at a high level this season while battling a shoulder injury. He ranks 20th in the NFL with an 87.3 rating and 14th with 7.41 yards per pass. Those numbers are better than Hundley’s, but hardly at a Pro Bowl level.
Hundley flushes from the pocket quicker than Winston. In his first six games this season, Winston threw 19 passes outside the pocket. With barely half of Hundley’s total number of passes outside the pocket in a similar six-game sample size, Winston threw while running to the left four times, the same as Hundley. His 21 percent rate exiting left was significantly higher than Hundley's, indicating the Packers' backup quarterback is too reliant on flushing to the right.
Another significant difference is the production from throwing passes while running right. Winston completed 9 of 15 (60 percent) for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Hundley has completed only 7 of 31 (23 percent) for 79 yards.
By design, Hundley hasn’t thrown an interception while running right. Of his 24 incompletions, 17 were thrown out of bounds and two were sent directly into the ground to kill a play.
“Throwaways are good,” Van Pelt said. “… The tuba player is always open. So we don’t throw interceptions, we don’t take sacks. But that (tuba) guy is always open.”
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Hundley’s best play as the Packers' starter came outside the pocket. In the fourth quarter at Chicago, Hundley rolled right, released a pass near the hash marks and completed it for a 19-yard, game-sealing touchdown to Adams. That, Van Pelt would say later, was an Aaron Rodgers play.
Perhaps Hundley is gaining comfort flushing left. In his first three starts, he exited right every time he left the pocket. Of his 12 passes outside the pocket against the Baltimore Ravens and Steelers, three were thrown after he exited left.
It’s a tendency Hundley should continue to break. Whether designed or improvised, flushing outside the pocket is worthwhile because quarterbacks often catch defensive backs in compromised positions.
“It’s hard to find out where the quarterback is,” Adams said. “Because a lot of people like to get their eyes back and try to find out where the quarterback is on the field, and then they lose track of their man. I think that’s where you have time to kind of use your awareness and find the voids in the defense.”