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Green Bay Packers struggling without their leader

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Green Bay sails into the Steel City on Sunday bearing a boatload of tradition but lacking their admiral at the helm.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Setting the stage for Sunday’s Week-12 matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-2) and the Green Bay Packers (5-5), you’d normally be looking for all of the usual indications that the opponent actually might represent a somewhat tougher challenge than their .500 season record might suggest. But after starting the 2017 regular season with a 4-1 mark—thanks to their franchise quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, putting up his typically stratospheric numbers—disaster struck the Packers, and the team now seems to have its gearshift jammed in reverse.

Since October 15th when Rodgers broke his collarbone in the first quarter of Green Bay’s game against Minnesota, the Packers’ record has been 1-4, the exact opposite of their promising start. What Roethlisberger is to the Steelers, Rodgers certainly is to the Packers. Quite simply, without No. 12, the Pack may fight and they might claw, but they seldom win.

Not that Green Bay’s backup QB Brett Hundley isn’t a talented athlete who, despite his growing pains, might still have a promising future. But Rodgers is the kind of talent that a team signs once in twenty years—if they’re lucky. He currently leads the NFL’s all-time list in career passer rating with an astronomical mark of 104.1 compiled during the years since his 2005 rookie season. Nobody in the NFL has made more clutch throws than Rodgers, a quarterback who’s always played the game as though ice water was coursing through his veins.

Tasked with the impossible assignment of stepping in for the future Hall of Famer, Hundley has, so far, found the job to be—you guessed it—impossible. Prior to the injury, Rodgers had thrown 13 TD passes in a bit more than five games. Having now played approximately the same number of games, Hundley has only two TD passes along with seven interceptions and 17 sacks. Oddly, sacks are the sole category in which Hundley has done a bit better than Rodgers—unless the Steelers should manage to sack him twice in the first quarter at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Rodgers had been taking a similar beating (to the tune of 19 sacks) in the six games he started for the Pack. No. 12’s trademark ability to make deadly-accurate throws while running full-speed out of the pocket (typically with slobbering linebackers in hot pursuit) is a double-edged sword. This trait was on display when Rodgers was slammed to the turf by Vikings’ linebacker Anthony Barr just as he released a pass. Whereas Rodgers might be wishing now that he could be more of a pocket passer, Ben Roethlisberger also has taken some time for reflection—in his case, on the physical toll of tossing a few too many 250-pound linebackers off of his back over the years.

Given the obvious issues which Green Bay’s offensive line currently is having in pass protection, Hundley has been spending a large portion of his playing time trying to avoid a fate similar to that of Mr. Rodgers. And last Sunday’s 23-0 shutout at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens at Lambeau Field definitely was anything but a beautiful day in the cheese-heads’ neighborhood. Hundley was sacked six times while tossing three interceptions plus losing a fumble on a sack in the fourth quarter. His quarterback rating for the game was a pathetic 13.6.

The only bright spot in an otherwise dreadful performance by the Packers’ offense was the play of wide receiver Davante Adams, who had eight catches for 126 yards, despite his quarterback being hounded unmercifully all afternoon long. The emergence of Adams as a key weapon is particularly notable because Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are the star receivers normally associated with the Pack attack. The issues Green Bay has had lately getting the ball to its wideouts probably has something to do with the fact that the Packers lost their standout right tackle Brian Bulaga, who was injured in the Packers’ Monday Night Football game with the Detroit Lions on November 6th. Bulaga was recently put on IR with a torn ACL, effectively ending his season.

All of the above explains why, as Hundley intrepidly leads his team into Heinz Field on Sunday, he’ll be facing a major challenge in his bid to bounce back from the worst performance in his brief career as an NFL quarterback. This very circumstance, of course, ought to make the blood of every rabid Steelers fan run absolutely cold, given the Black-and-gold’s history in matchups against so-called “pushover” reserve quarterbacks.

As a team, Green Bay hasn’t been particularly impressive on either side of the ball. Their offense ranks 23rd in the NFL and their defense ranks 18th (not including any Week-12 stats). To make matters worse, the Pack has suffered some additional injuries to key players, and they’re likely to be without the services of at least one, and likely both of their top-2 running backs Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery. Linebacker and Steelers’ nemesis Clay Matthews also looks like a scratch for Sunday’s game. Be sure to check on any last-minute status updates prior to kickoff right here at BTSC.

Perhaps the experts are correct in viewing this Packers team, crippled as they are by the absence of their leader, as tackling an insurmountable challenge at Heinz Field on Sunday night. But given the Packers’ astute organization and the proficiency of their coaching staff led by Head Coach Mike McCarthy, this definitely is not a team likely to roll over and play dead for the second week in a row.

As for the Steelers, according to Football Outsiders, the Black-and-gold currently rank No. 17 in the NFL in points scored per drive, No. 25 in red-zone points and No. 31 in red-zone TDs (not including any Week-12 stats). So there’s no reason for any overconfidence in approaching Sunday’s prime-time matchup.