GREEN BAY – Despite how helpless Brett Hundley looked in last Sunday’s 26-20 win over the Buccaneers, a couple of different-looking big plays offered a bit of hope – a new and potentially better option – for the Packers’ struggling offense this week against Cleveland.
Late in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field, with the Packers trailing Tampa Bay by three points and Hundey having managed only a meager 55 passing yards, Mike McCarthy called a zone-read play on a crucial third-and-2 from Green Bay’s 44-yard line. Hundley took the snap, quickly surveyed the Buccaneers’ defense, faked the handoff to running back Jamaal Williams and ran the ball himself to the right for 14 yards and a first down. Five plays later, Mason Crosby kicked the game-tying field goal.
Then, on the fifth play of overtime, facing second-and-10 from his own 41, Hundley again ran a zone-read, faking to Williams, pulling the ball back and racing 18 yards into Tampa Bay territory. The beleaguered backup-turned-starting quarterback stood up and triumphantly pointed his arm forward for a first down. Three plays later, running back Aaron Jones scampered into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
Two plays; two zone-reads that gained 32 yards with Hundley’s feet, on a day when he couldn’t do much of anything with his arm. On both plays, Hundley – a smart and confident signal-caller who knows the playbook even if he can't always execute it – went to the line of scrimmage with the option to hand the ball off or tuck it and run himself. The quarterback’s job on the zone-read is to read the defensive end on the edge and react; depending on whether or not the opposing player takes the dive determines whether the QB gives the ball or keeps it.
It’s a somewhat gadgety play common in college football, but not often seen in the NFL. But to have Hundley, who used the zone-read frequently at UCLA and has been a poor passer over his six starts after replacing injured Aaron Rodgers, run it for Green Bay would seem to have been an intuitive fix for a broken offense.
During and after the game, given the play’s success, there was a chorus of questions from fans and media about why McCarthy and the Packers didn’t go to the zone-read earlier. Actually, they had, in Hundley’s first start against the Saints, but of those three zone-read plays, only one was a quarterback run. And then, the team pretty much went away from it for five games until the fourth quarter against the Buccaneers.
"There's been one or two (zone-read plays called before), but nothing where the defense was actually closing," Hundley said after the game. "So that was the first couple where they sort of gave me the option to run it and make something out of it.
The Packers desperately needed to try something different in the second half Sunday. Their first three offensive possessions resulted in three-and-outs, as they went from up seven at halftime to down three in the fourth quarter. While the run game, led by Williams, had been productive early, Hundley’s inability to throw the ball gave Green Bay no balance and made it too easy for Tampa Bay’s defense. Thus, finally, a changeup with the zone-read calls.
"The read option, we always have it just because I’m able to run," Hundley said. "But it was something that we ran once and we liked what it looked like, and we came back to it a couple times and it worked out in our favor. When you find something (that works) you stick with it, and that’s what we did.
"I think it added a lot, especially when not everything is clicking, we weren't in a rhythm for the second half. But being able to find something like that and put it in there, it made something happen and made a couple big plays, found a way to get it in there."
Hundley said that after the previous week’s pass-heavy performance against Pittsburgh, the Packers took the Buccaneers by surprise.
"I think especially from last game, when we’re just airing it out every couple plays, taking shots, it was different – especially how we approached this week with the zone read and stuff like that," Hundley said. "It probably threw them off a little bit, but we executed and did what we were supposed to do."
The zone-read run scheme is a must have with a QB like Hundley... Gives rushing attack extra dimension and defense must account for QB runs... pic.twitter.com/426dzi2gmy — Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) December 5, 2017
Yes, but it’s fair to wonder why it took so long. Save for a few combined quarters against the Bears and Steelers, Hundley has been mostly incapable of throwing against regular-season NFL defenses in his seven-game stint since Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6. He has the third-worst passer rating in the league (70.6) and the second-fewest yards per game (159). Why not the zone-read sooner?
"You have calls that are normal down-and-distance calls. You have situational calls. You have calls that are both," McCarthy said. "It was something that was more of a certain situation, that when you get to the fourth quarter, things get heightened. The fact that we weren’t on the field as much, we got to some situational calls in normal down-and-distance and that was an example of that."
In other words, typically McCarthy wouldn’t call a zone-read gimmick on third-and-2 or second-and-10, but because of Hundley’s limitations he had to try something unconventional.
"When you can find different ways to win, it makes your football team better over the long run," McCarthy said, finding the silver lining. "If you want to sit here and talk about one play, or statistics, and this and that, I get it. But when you can grind it out and do things a different way and your team is successful … we’re a better team, not only because we won the game but because of how we won."
In that victory over the Buccaneers, which kept Green Bay’s faint playoff hopes alive, the running game was excellent, totaling 199 yards on 29 carries (6.9 yards per rush). Williams carried 21 times for a career-high 113 (5.4-yard average) and Hundley ran seven times for 66 yards (9.4 average), also a career best. Earlier this week, offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said that, while the zone-read has "been in our playbook," the effective ground attack was what made it work Sunday.
"You go into every game a little bit different, as far as certain things you want to emphasize," Bennett said. "Over the last few weeks, we've been emphasizing plays like that a little bit more often than in years past."
Obviously, when Rodgers is under center, the Packers don’t have much need for the zone-read. But the two-time MVP, who practiced Wednesday and Thursday for the first time since going on injured reserve, is still out for at least another week. Until then, Green Bay must prepare for a road contest at Cleveland with the quarterback that it’s got.
And while it would be easy to dismiss the bumbling Browns – and tempting to look past the game to Rodgers’ return – this won’t be a cakewalk for Hundley and the Packers. Cleveland is winless at 0-13, but it probably views this week’s matchup as its last, best chance for a victory. Not to mention the fact that the Browns, despite not being able to do much of anything else well, have the NFL’s sixth-best run defense, which allows just 96.9 yards per game.
Green Bay will need its impressive rookie running-back tandem of Williams and Jones to power the offense on Sunday.
"We’ve got to make sure the running game is effective," Williams said, "and make sure people really pay attention to it and not think we’re just going to keep passing the ball."
But, McCarthy said, Hundley must do more, too.
"Offensively, we need to do some things better than we did (against Tampa Bay)," McCarthy said. "Clearly. We’ve got to get the passing game clicking. We’ve got some things we’ve definitely got to clean up."
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.