GREEN BAY – The Packers held their last official practice of training camp on Thursday, on Nitschke Field in shoulder pads and shorts, two days prior to the preseason finale at Buffalo.
Here are five things we learned:
1. The Packers already are drawing up, and trying out, plays for Week 1 vs. the Saints.
During the first team period of practice, and one of the more spirited 11-on-11 sessions of camp, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett had a rather animated celebration when Rodgers hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a play-action deep shot.
Turns out, the play was recently drawn up in a morning QB meeting, initiated by Hackett, as the first-string offense has begun preparations for the opener in New Orleans.
Rodgers said those regular discussions "can be the genesis for a big play or a crappy one," and this one worked like a charm.
"It was a beautiful play-design," said Rodgers, who exaggerated the fake handoff by turning his back to the defense and hiding the ball as he began rolling out. The play-action got rookie defensive lineman T.J. Slaton looking and moving the wrong way.
"I came out clean off the edge and … I just peeked back to the other side and saw Marquez running wide open. He's pretty fast, and I didn't quite run out of arm. It's fun when things come together like that in the QB room and then you can execute them on the field."
2. Rodgers is starting to convey the seriousness of the regular season being right around the corner.
It's still 16 days until the game against the Saints, and the Packers will have at least a half dozen practices over the next two weeks in full prep mode.
But Rodgers started changing the atmosphere of practice on Thursday when, while working on the silent count out of shotgun, he got visibly and audibly frustrated with rookie center Josh Myers for not snapping the ball on time.
As annoyed as he was, Rodgers said after practice these are the moments that are important to go through, and based on what he knows of Myers so far, it was a mistake he won't repeat. There's no overstating the value of these issues coming up now rather than during an early-season game, especially when working on crowd noise. The music was cranked up the loudest it's been all camp on Thursday.
"I was very gentle and patient early in camp and there has to be a switch because we're getting a little closer," Rodgers said. "It's important that he feels the urgency in my demeanor moving forward, especially with potentially a young person playing next to him. We need him to play more like a veteran and not like a rookie."
Fellow rookie Royce Newman is on the verge of nailing down the starting job at right guard for Week 1, and if he does the Packers will have two rookie draft picks starting on the offensive line in an opener for the first time in 15 years – before Rodgers was the starting QB.
"That's always a concern," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said of relying on so much youth up front. "We're just trying to find that right combination. They'll definitely have a lot of preparation time together."
3. Despite the occasional hiccup, Rodgers and the No. 1 offense were on their A game.
There are almost too many impressive plays to list that Rodgers made in Thursday's 11-on-11 periods. In addition to the aforementioned deep shot to Valdes-Scantling, and another 50-yard throw into the hoop in the back of the end zone during drills, he also:
· Feathered a teardrop throw perfectly over Chandon Sullivan's outstretched arms and into Davante Adams' for a big play up the seam.
· Connected with Valdes-Scantling again deep, but this one almost like a back-shoulder throw with Sullivan in tight coverage.
· Threw three straight TD passes in a red-zone period, first to Adams, who made a diving grab on a cross; then to tight end Robert Tonyan, who hauled in a floater one-handed and toe-tapped in the back of the end zone; and finally to Malik Taylor on a quick comeback route near the pylon.
The rapid-fire streak was broken only by a false start penalty on the next snap, but the sequence was just another example of how locked in Rodgers has been over the past month.
"Definitely been a good camp," he said. "I've felt good from the beginning. I think I've been accurate."
He went on to praise the cast around him, not only Adams but also the growth of Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard both off and on the field, with the two not mutually exclusive, along with the stabilizing presence of veteran Randall Cobb.
"They each bring a lot of different things to the table, but those guys have been a big part of us gelling on offense," Rodgers said.
4. As tough as Rodgers was Thursday, the No. 1 defense had its moments, too.
Early in 11-on-11, edge rushers Rashan Gary and Preston Smith both had disruptive pressures, with Smith simply continuing what has been an impressive month taking a large number of first-unit reps. He's been a presence in nearly every practice.
Defensive lineman Kenny Clark also snuffed out a screen pass to running back AJ Dillon, and the No. 1 defense also won the two-minute drill at the end of practice with the help of a "sack" by Kingsley Keke. Rodgers initially kept the drive alive with a fourth-and-10 completion to Adams, but a few snaps later safety Adrian Amos knocked away a long throw to the goal line for Lazard.
5. Jordan Love is on track to play in Buffalo, but Kurt Benkert will get into the game as well.
Love took more 11-on-11 snaps Thursday than he did Tuesday, a progression that suggests he'll play on Saturday.
Since coming back from the shoulder injury in the preseason opener two weeks ago, Love's play has been up and down. He connected on a nice deep ball to Taylor on Thursday, but also had an overthrow while pressured by Tipa Galeai that was intercepted by a sliding Christian Uphoff.
"If Jordan plays, we're most likely looking at probably a half, maybe somewhat into the third quarter," LaFleur said of the plan vs. the Bills. "Kurt will definitely play."
Benkert will be looking to build on his solid first half last week vs. the Jets, and he threw a pair of TDs on Thursday to new arrival Damon Hazelton during red-zone work.