Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh talks about preparing for the Green Bay Packers after the bye week. (Baltimore Sun video)
Ravens defensive players and coaches spent much of the week touting what makes Green Bay Packers de-facto starting quarterback Brett Hundley so dangerous. They praised his arm strength and athleticism, and how he commands coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. Several even cited Hundley characteristics that reminded them of Aaron Rodgers, the injured star he has being tasked to replaced.
When asked whether they were catching a break facing Hundley Sunday rather than Rodgers — he of the 38,212 career passing yards, 310 passing touchdowns, two league MVP awards and six Pro Bowl selections — some of the Ravens balked and bristled. Nose tackle Michael Pierce, however, saw no point in denying the obvious.
“Aaron Rodgers is one of the best players in our league. We have a ton of respect for Brett Hundley, but it’s an opportunity that we just can’t pass up, especially in the position we’re in,” Pierce said. “We need to win every game. Any time you can avoid probably one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in their franchise, it’s an opportunity that you’ve got to pounce on. We studied up on Hundley and everything, but Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers at the end of the day.”
The Ravens’ road to a potential playoff berth has been littered with backup quarterbacks and that continues with Sunday’s game against Hundley and the Packers (5-4) at Lambeau Field. The Ravens have faced four signal callers they seemed unlikely to see when preparation for the season began and they should get three more with matchups against the Packers, Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts still remaining on their schedule.
Their 4-5 record includes victories over the Oakland Raiders, who started EJ Manuel with Derek Carr out with a back injury, and the Miami Dolphins, who used Matt Moore with Jay Cutler out with broken ribs. It also includes losses to the Chicago Bears, who had rookie Mitchell Trubisky making his first career start, and the Minnesota Vikings, who ran out Case Keenum with Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater sidelined.
Any scenario of the Ravens getting hot and securing a playoff trip will almost certainly include them taking advantage of backups Hundley, Houston’s Tom Savage and Indianapolis’ Jacoby Brissett. Those three have 19 combined starts and are far more forgiving matchups for the Ravens than having to game plan for Rodgers (out indefinitely with broken collarbone), Texans rookie phenom Deshaun Watson (season-ending knee injury) and Colts star Andrew Luck (season-ending shoulder injury).
“All of these guys present a unique challenge,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Quarterbacks in this league are here for a reason. They are very talented, they are very good. How it pans out for them in games in this league, that is the highest level. That is the toughest position to play in sports I think. [Hundley] has done a good job for them. He has operated the offense very well. He is not a rookie. He knows the offense. You can see that he emulates Aaron Rodgers a lot in the way that he handles himself and the way that he plays the game. How could you not? It has been good for him.”
Hundley isn’t exactly an unknown. He was a fifth-round pick by the Packers in 2015 after he started three years at UCLA. He was Green Bay’s third-string quarterback and didn’t see any game action as a rookie, but he played in four games last year in relief of Rogers.
He’ll make his fourth straight start Sunday, having completed 75 of 122 passing attempts (61.5 percent) with two touchdowns and four interceptions. The Packers are hoping Hundley can carry over the momentum from his impressive fourth quarter in a victory over the Chicago Bears last Sunday.
“He’s improved with every opportunity,” McCarthy said Wednesday on a conference call with Baltimore-area reporters. “Really, it is more about the cohesiveness of the offense, just playing the way we need to play each week. Obviously, we have a huge challenge this week with Baltimore’s defense and all the different things that you have to prepare for.”
When the Ravens’ defense is at its best, it is stopping the run to make opposing offenses one dimensional and then disguising coverages and bringing pressure from different areas. Obviously, the less experienced the quarterback, the better the chance for the Ravens’ defense to confound and confuse. Hundley has been around for a while, but he doesn’t have too much regular-season experience to draw on.
“Even though he’s been in the system for three years, he’s definitely not Aaron Rodgers. We all know that,” said Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley. “I don’t want to say that the advantage is in our hands, but we have to take advantage of the fact that their offense isn’t fully the same with him not being there. At the end of the day, no matter who is their quarterback, we have to play our disciplined type of defense.”
Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees insists that facing backup quarterbacks presents myriad challenges to his group, too.
“Even though the other quarterback was the starter and is real good, you kind of had an idea of what he does. Sometimes playing a backup — especially if he does not have a lot of game footage — is hard. You do not know all the habits and things that he has and how he is reading things,” Pees said. “If a guy has been playing for four or five games, no longer is that to me the case. But if he has been playing for one or two, or if all of a sudden, you have a new starter, that is what really becomes harder than everybody thinks. Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, you are playing the backup; that is no big deal.’ It is a big deal.”
In a Week Five victory over the Raiders, the Ravens sacked Manuel three times and harassed him throughout as Carr’s backup completed 13-of-26 pass attempts for 159 yards and a touchdown. A week later, the Ravens were beaten in overtime by Trubisky’s Bears despite the rookie completing just eight passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. The Bears rushed for 231 yards in the game.
Against the Vikings in Week 7, the Ravens held Keenum (20-of-31 for 188 yards, no touchdowns and one interception), mostly in check, but they allowed 169 rushing yards in a loss. They returned home the following week and overwhelmed Moore and the Dolphins as the long-time backup had two interceptions returned for touchdowns and was sacked three times.
“There is nothing more important than the team you are playing and the guy that is under center,” Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “I don’t think it really so much matters that they were backups before. They are starting now, and [Hundley] is coming off a win. Momentum and confidence is everything, especially in this league. Every team we play is going to be a task we have to handle.”
Veteran safety Eric Weddle agreed, indicating the biggest issue is how the Ravens play, not who they are opposing at quarterback. The Ravens haven’t consistently played well enough to make that an overriding factor in their favor anyway.
“At this point in the season, I am not going to say we should take advantage of this, we should do this or be this. At this point, we just want to play as best as we can and try to get a win,” Weddle said. “We are not looking past whoever is playing.”