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Packers’ ‘written off’ younger players stepped up against Steelers

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Brett Hundley was not the only young Packer who played beyond most fans’ expectations in Pittsburgh last Sunday.

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

It was just one week ago that the sky appeared to be falling for the Green Bay Packers.

Coming off a humiliating 23-0 home defeat at the hands of the middle-of-the-road Baltimore Ravens, morale in Green Bay was among its lowest in many years. Perhaps even more disappointing was the performance of quarterback Brett Hundley, who posted a passer rating of just 43.6 after being intercepted three times in the shutout. After such a promising game against Chicago the week before, Hundley looked confused and hesitant, reverting to his form from previous starts.

But the third-year player rose to the challenge on Sunday night against Pittsburgh, having his best game as a pro by far with an astounding 134.3 passer rating, three touchdowns, and no picks. On a final offensive drive requiring a touchdown to tie the game, Hundley led the team 77 yards and converted a fourth down opportunity to eventually reach the end zone. In that drive, Hundley showed poise and confidence in his passes that had much more zip than fans have grown accustomed to seeing. A game like this one, especially with Hundley connecting on several deep throws, can be an enormous confidence boost to a young quarterback.

Hundley, however, wasn’t the only young player to turn up his performance against the Steelers. Several often-given-up-on players contributed to the Packers in the close loss and may factor into the Packers’ season outcome moving forward.

Kyler Fackrell

After gaining some recognition for his upstart performance against Baltimore, Fackrell continued to show flashes in his first NFL start. In place of Clay Matthews, Fackrell was lined up on both sides of the line as an edge rusher throughout the game and showed effectiveness as a bull rusher on several occasions.

While his power moves stood out initially on the opening drive, Fackrell showed pursuit on a number of plays, especially early in the second quarter when Ben Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket and took off running for the sticks on third down. Fackrell caught Roethlisberger from behind, showing great awareness, and stalled the Steelers’ drive. That pursuit showed up again on a fourth quarter screen pass to Le’veon Bell.

A standing rusher from the edge, inside, and traditional outside linebacker positions, Fackrell showed some versatility against Pittsburgh and seems to have taken a step forward for the time being.

Damarious Randall

Many have been critical of the former first round pick’s play this season, including this writer. But Randall has had a solid stretch of games that carried over to the matchup in Pittsburgh. Randall’s instinctive safety tendencies from college have translated to his use in zone coverage from the slot. Randall broke nicely on a Roethlisberger pass in the first half that resulted in his team-leading fourth interception. He also deflected a key pass downfield later in the game and was in position on a few others had the ball been thrown his way. His physicality in run support has also noticeably improved.

Pro Football Focus gave Randall Green Bay’s highest individual grade this past week after allowing just two catches on five targets and noted that Pittsburgh didn’t complete a pass to Antonio Brown with Randall in coverage. The third-year pro is starting to re-gain his rookie form.

Jake Ryan

Fellow inside linebacker Blake Martinez has had a Pro Bowl-caliber season and had another solid game with an interception against the Steelers. But Ryan graded out very well in pass coverage, allowing just 16 yards on three completions against him. Ryan was PFF’s second-highest graded player behind Randall and also ranked just behind Randall in terms of coverage grade. Ryan was no slouch in run support either, and his 52 defensive snaps were his highest of the season. Martinez and Ryan made a good pair in the middle last week, something to watch again over the next few weeks.

Jason Spriggs

Spriggs had a rocky preseason and ended the Ravens game on a sour note, allowing a drive-killing sack to Terrell Suggs in the fourth quarter. But the second-year tackle bounced back in a big way against the Steelers in his own first NFL start. After speculation about whether or not Green Bay would look to offensive tackle in the offseason after the plethora of injuries and inconsistent play of its tackles, Spriggs had a solid game.

Matched up on edge rusher Bud Dupree most of the evening, Spriggs did not allow a sack. Although he still had some issues with inside rush moves from time to time, Spriggs showed the ability to recover and was very effective against the speed rush throughout the night. He was also effective in the running game, sealing off blocks and showing a mean streak at times. Packers.com has a nice recap of his evening with videos in this link.

It was a big moment for Spriggs to not only get the call to start the game with a healthy Justin McCray, but to have a high-caliber start. Perhaps Green Bay’s tackle depth will look much better heading into the offseason.