GREEN BAY – With Aaron Rodgers preparing for surgery on his broken collarbone, the Packers and new starting quarterback Brett Hundley went back to work Monday.
After all, there is a game to be played in six short days against the New Orleans Saints.
The task at hand isn’t an easy one for the Packers. For only the 10th time since Hundley was born, Green Bay will take the field without either Rodgers or Brett Favre at quarterback.
Still, there is optimism in the locker room about the Packers’ ability to bounce back from the loss of their two-time MVP quarterback.
The faith stems from the resolve the team has shown in the face of injury, its experience having to forge ahead without Rodgers in 2013, and perhaps most importantly, an overwhelming belief in Hundley.
“I understand what happened to Aaron is bad and a blow to our team, but you have to remember Aaron was sitting behind another quarterback once upon a time,” defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said.
“(Hundley) has to take all the experience, all the practices he’s (had) with Aaron and put it on the field and open up his offense.”
That’s why the Packers aren’t pressing, particularly on defense. As the Packers turned the page to New Orleans Monday, the coaching staff began stressing to players the importance of doing their job – nothing more, nothing less.
Coordinator Dom Capers said the conversation Monday centered on cleaning up mental errors and missed tackles in the aftermath of the Packers’ 23-10 loss in Minnesota.
The defense was challenged in Minnesota. Already missing Morgan Burnett (hamstring), Kevin King (concussion) and Davon House (quad), the Packers were forced to patch together a secondary several times against the Vikings.
After losing Quinten Rollins to an ankle injury, there was one point in Sunday’s game when the Packers were down to only one available cornerback (Josh Hawkins).
Undrafted rookie Lenzy Pipkins – who’d been active in one regular-season game prior to Sunday – and Damarious Randall eventually returned to finish the game.
Capers, now in his ninth season as Packers’ defensive coordinator, has been in this position before when Rodgers missed seven games in 2013 due to a broken left collarbone.
The lesson for everyone involved was not trying to do too much in the quarterback’s absence.
“I don't think it's going to really affect the approach,” Capers said. “We go out there every week, our goal is to keep people out of the end zone. … The guys know that, it's something that we've talked about since Day 1, whether Aaron's playing quarterback or not.”
Despite the injuries, there have been positives for the Packers’ defense through the first six games. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark and inside linebacker Blake Martinez have made significant strides in their second NFL campaigns.
The two 2016 draft picks contributed to the two turnovers the Packers forced in the first half against the Vikings, with Clark forcing a fumble of Jerick McKinnon and Martinez tipping the ball that led to a Randall interception. Both takeaways turned into scoring drives.
Those types of big plays will be key going forward to make life easier on Hundley and the offense, which finished Sunday’s game down three of its five starting linemen.
“Create more opportunities for him,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. “Get off the field on third down. Give him more chances with the ball in his hand to get him comfortable back there. I think that’s one of the most important things to do, is get him back the ball.”
Although the Packers have had to mix and match with their secondary this season, they have had the full services of six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, who has played more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps this season.
Along with his 2½ sacks, Matthews has been a valuable asset in coverage and defending the run. His availability has been important with Nick Perry (hand) and Ahmad Brooks (back) each missing a game so far.
The test starts Sunday against the Saints and future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, who has thrown for 1,321 yards in the Saints’ first five games with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Yet, Capers isn’t asking his guys to do anything different than normal. Rodgers or no Rodgers, it’s the defense’s job to keep Brees and Co. out of the end zone.
“To me, this game is all about your total focus has to be on things you’ve got control over,” Capers said. “If you don’t have any control over it, then you don’t need to waste any energy. So we’ve got to go back to work on the defensive side of the ball, and first of all see who’s going to be available.”