DENVER – The days of the third preseason game serving as the final dress rehearsal for the regular season appear to be over, at least in Green Bay.
Starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers played just two series and the Packers were substituting regularly on defense by the second quarter in their 20-17 loss to the Broncos in Denver on Saturday night.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy emphasized after the game that his focus remains on getting as much film as he can to evaluate the team's personnel in order to select the best roster next weekend.
He wasn't as focused on getting the starters extended time, though many stayed in longer than Rodgers.
"Obviously the way we played tonight, it's less of that," McCarthy said, referring to regular-season prep. "Individual personnel evaluation in my view is very difficult. You have a limited number of practices, and it's important to try to get as much information as you can."
With starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga sidelined by an ankle injury, Rodgers was sacked by Denver star Von Miller early in the game, forcing a field-goal try. That was the two time MVP's last snap.
McCarthy said Rodgers' exit wasn't due to the sack, that two series was his plan all along, and backup Brett Hundley played the rest of the game.
Rodgers tried two shots down the field, a deep ball to Jordy Nelson and a bullet over the middle for Randall Cobb in the end zone from the Denver 23-yard line. Both passes were overthrown, barely on the one to Cobb, and Rodgers felt the Rocky Mountain altitude had an impact on them.
"It did," he said. "I threw that one (to Nelson) farther than I've thrown that ball in a while, probably. The one to Jordy was probably 10 yards off, the one to Randall about a yard off. Disappointing."
Rodgers (3-of-5, 12 yards) understood he wasn't going to get much work, and if history holds he won't play in the fourth preseason game next week. One goal was achieved, though.
"I'm healthy, that's a good start," he said. "It's preseason. We don't play a whole lot anymore around here. Just get in, try to find a rhythm, and get out."
As expected the way the Packers played it, the game was full of ups and downs. Penalties and sacks were the biggest problems in Hundley (20-of-30, 186 yards, 83.5 rating) getting much going until a scoring drive in the fourth quarter cut into Denver's 20-10 lead.
Hundley took it in himself on a 6-yard scramble, but given a few chances for the tying or go-ahead score, the Packers came up short.
"He took a big step as far as handling some adverse situations, not only multiple personnel groupings but the number of different guys he played with, three different centers," McCarthy said of Hundley. "I thought he was put in some tough spots. Our protection was an issue tonight, but I like way he kept battling, kept playing."
Backup center Lucas Patrick left the game to be evaluated for a concussion, while outside linebackers Nick Perry (ankle) and Jayrone Elliott (back) also exited with injuries.
The Packers took an early 10-0 lead on the strength of a 25-yard Ty Montgomery run to set up a field goal and a 42-yard interception return by safety Kentrell Brice, all the way to the Denver 2-yard line.
Brice's big turnover set up Montgomery for the TD plunge.
"You talk about the second-year leap, he's right in middle of it," McCarthy said of Brice. "We were excited about the things he did as a rookie, his offseason, and he's comfortable with what he's doing on special teams, too. He's playing very well."
The Packers' run defense had been a major strength thus far in the preseason, but Denver's C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles broke off a few explosive runs to get the Broncos going. Anderson romped 16 yards practically untouched for Denver's first touchdown.
Green Bay recovered with back-to-back stops on third- and fourth-and-1 in the red zone, though. That kept the Packers in the lead through most of the second quarter, when many of Green Bay's second-unit defenders were in against Denver's starters.
"The defense did some good things in situation stops," McCarthy said. "A lot of guys got to play a lot tonight. I look forward to watching it. Tomorrow will be a big day for us as a staff."
Uneven play was a constant in the game, in all phases. Receiver Trevor Davis made some nifty moves on a 27-yard punt return, but the Packers' special teams also had a slew of penalties, including three holding calls on one kickoff return.
On defense, rookie cornerback Kevin King broke up a pass in the end zone to save a touchdown, and second-year defensive tackle Brian Price forced one fumble and recovered another. Yet, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on rookie safety Josh Jones helped Denver get a field goal, and rookie corner Lenzy Pipkins was picked on to the tune of back-to-back receptions covering 41 yards for a score.
Offensively, rookie running back Aaron Jones busted a 28-yard run, yet the Packers managed just 60 rushing yards on 23 attempts outside of the two long ones by Montgomery and Jones. Plus, Hundley was stopped twice on fourth-and-1 sneaks when the timing of the snaps appeared off, and an unsportsmanlike foul on fullback Joe Kerridge killed promising field position after a defensive turnover.
McCarthy lamented the number of negative plays on offense that created tough down-and-distance situations, and Rodgers noted there are still issues to sort out with the reserves on the offensive line.
"We need to shore that up a little bit," Rodgers said. "We'll look at it and see how those guys did. It'll be nice to get Donny (Barclay) back here soon (from an ankle injury). We need to keep getting better at those backup spots, figure out who the swing tackles are going to be and who the next guard is going to be."
The Packers have one preseason game left to see and decide.
"We have another week here to evaluate our football team against the Rams, and we'll move on and get ready for Seattle," McCarthy said.
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