GREEN BAY – The Packers held a shortened practice Wednesday at Ray Nitschke Field, wearing shoulder pads and shorts.
Here are five things we learned:
1. There's no hiding from the struggles on special teams last year in the ongoing effort to improve.
In other words, no one's laying all the blame for the special-teams breakdowns on former coordinator Shawn Mennenga. New coordinator Maurice Drayton was Mennenga's assistant, and core players like linebackers Oren Burks and Ty Summers were here, too.
Part of the message is to own the failures while pushing for change.
"I feel like he's really just being accountable for what has happened in the past and challenging us, honestly," Burks said of Drayton's approach. "He's really challenging us to step up as player leaders to bring guys along as we're getting into this."
Added Summers: "It starts with a mentality. You look at our rankings last year, and they were obviously not good, so the only way to go is up."
In 2020, the Packers finished last in the league in opponents' punt-return average, allowing two returns for scores. They were also 23rd in kickoff coverage, 30th in punt returns and 31st on kickoff returns.
The return game is expected to get a boost from third-round draft choice Amari Rodgers on punts, with young running backs Kylin Hill (a seventh-round pick) and Patrick Taylor being evaluated as options on kickoffs.
Those evaluations move into a more serious phase with the first preseason game Saturday night. Head Coach Matt LaFleur is looking for players to jump out on the coverage units as well.
"Just guys going down and trying to make plays on the football – shedding blocks, playing fast, playing aggressive," LaFleur said of what he'd like to see vs. Houston, admitting schematically the Packers will keep things rather simple in the preseason.
As for any new contributors stepping forward on special teams so far, LaFleur wasn't giving away any early contenders.
"I think we have some ideas, but until you really get out there and go live, full combat, it's tough to tell right now," he said.
2. Drayton might rival new defensive coordinator Joe Barry in possessing an endless well of energy.
Drayton's voice can be heard from a ways away on the practice field during special-teams periods, and he doesn't like to waste a second of the time he's allotted.
"That dude is like wired all the time," Summers said. "Just intensity, wanting guys to be awake. I don't know if he's ever tired and if he is, he fakes it really good."
3. Saturday will be a major opportunity for two young edge rushers.
Za'Darius Smith (back) has yet to practice. Preston Smith took a veteran rest day and likely won't play against the Texans. Rashan Gary (groin) sat out another workout, and Randy Ramsey (ankle) is out for an extended period of time.
That puts the edge-rushing spotlight for the preseason opener on Jonathan Garvin and Tipa Galeai, who worked with the No. 1 defense Wednesday and will probably start on Saturday night.
Garvin, a seventh-round pick last year from Miami, saw action on defense and special teams last year during the first half of the season but was a game-day inactive thereafter. Galeai was an undrafted rookie last year from Utah State who spent the season on the practice squad after playing in Week 1.
4. There's a third young prospect on defense from TCU looking to make a name for himself.
Two years ago, the Packers drafted Summers from Texas Christian in the seventh round. Last year, it was safety Vernon Scott, also in the seventh round.
Then very quietly during the playoffs last January, the Packers signed one of their college defensive mates, safety Innis Gaines, to a futures contract.
Gaines is technically still a rookie even though his last game at TCU was in 2019 because he didn't sign with any professional team last year. Not much is known about his story, as he's yet to meet with the Green Bay media, but Summers suggested injuries kept him off the NFL radar until last winter.
"I mean, he's a stud," Summers said. "We call him 'Thump,' which is his nickname, and Thump as you can imagine is coming down and hitting people. That dude is just a missile."
Gaines had an impressive practice Tuesday, getting two pass breakups in the one-on-one drill that pits safeties covering tight ends. One of the breakups was in the end zone.
5. The new rule on cut-blocking will require an adjustment.
While a lot of media attention is on the league's point of emphasis for 2021 on taunting, it's the new restrictions on cut-blocking that have LaFleur's attention.
Players, on offense or defense, can no longer go low on an opponent if they're more than two yards outside the tackle box or more than five yards either way from the line of scrimmage.
How players on both sides engage with one another on screen passes and outside running plays will be monitored very closely, starting in the preseason. Offensive linemen running downfield can't try to create more space by diving at defenders' legs, and defensive backs trying to force an outside play back inside can't take out a blocker's legs, either.
"It kind of goes both ways," LaFleur said.