GREEN BAY – The Packers held the first of two full-pads joint practices with the Saints on Tuesday at Nitschke Field.
Here are five thing we learned:
1. The Packers' strong start to camp on defense was no mirage.
Green Bay's No. 1 defensive unit made things awfully difficult on New Orleans' first-team offense, which was quarterbacked by Andy Dalton with Jameis Winston sidelined.
Dalton connected early on a deep comeback to rookie receiver Chris Olave, but from there the Packers were controlling the action for quite a while, with several players stepping forward.
Up front, Preston Smith collapsed the edge for a couple of would-be sacks, Jarran Reed had a run stop at the line of scrimmage and a pressure or near-sack, Kenny Clark got to Alvin Kamara in the backfield to blow up a run, and Dean Lowry batted away a pass or two.
On the back end, Rasul Douglas broke up a pass over the middle, and both Douglas and Alexander made sideline throws to star receiver Michael Thomas a tough proposition. The cherry on top was Jaire Alexander breaking up a pass over the middle to Thomas in the two-minute drill that won the sequence for the defense.
"We're coming out and playing fast like we've been all camp," Clark said. "It's the standard that we've got here as a defense and we're just playing up to our standard and playing how we play football."
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has seen that first-hand on several days during camp, and in describing what he's been up against he touched on all levels of the unit.
He highlighted the "disruptive force" (Rashan Gary) and "cagey vet" (Smith) on the edges, the "interior push" from the big guys and the "rangy" inside linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell, Quay Walker). He also pointed out the combination at corner of "athleticism" (Alexander), "knowledge and instincts" (Douglas) and "raw talent" (Eric Stokes), with "consistent play" from safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, who's currently replaced by Vernon Scott while dealing with a hamstring injury.
"There's not a lot of holes in that defense," Rodgers said, matter of factly.
The Saints' No. 1 offense had one productive sequence in a move-the-ball period, with Kamara breaking off a pair of good runs followed by a nice grab by Thomas with Alexander in tight coverage.
But on third downs, the Packers' first unit on defense regularly won, stopping all but one of around a dozen conversion tries, and that one was a deflected pass for a completion.
How the Saints respond in Wednesday's second joint practice should be interesting.
"It's good," Clark said. "That's a really good football team and now the next step is being consistent, being able to stack day after day and not have any lows."
2. The Saints' defense stood tall, too, but Rodgers felt the Packers' offense also wasn't playing clean football.
Green Bay's four-time MVP QB termed it a "stalemate" for his group against New Orleans, but it's getting to the point in camp where the No. 1 offense needs to sharpen up.
"A lot of mental errors, a lot of pre-snap penalties," Rodgers said. "Kind of been the theme of camp. Simple, simple plays we're messing up.
"It's unfortunately some of the same guys. Repeat mistakes are a problem, so we've just got to clean those things up a little bit. The young guys, especially young receivers, we've got to be way more consistent. A lot of drops, a lot of bad route decisions, running the wrong route. We've got to get better in that area."
Rodgers felt his best throw of the day was a deep shot for rookie Romeo Doubs that was unfortunately dropped. A couple of red-zone connections were crisp, and he also hit a big play in two-minute to Allen Lazard before the drive stalled, leading to a field goal.
But overall, Rodgers feels there's a lot of cleaning up to do over the next couple of weeks as decisions are made about who's going to see the field.
"It's coming up," Rodgers said of the time for patience winding down. "We're going to shift that perspective, a little slight adjustment here moving forward because it's getting close to that time it's going to count, and I need guys out there I can trust."
3. The bright spot on offense was Sammy Watkins.
Rodgers called it the veteran receiver's best practice to date, and it was no surprise to him that it came when another team was lined up on the other side.
On one snap when Rodgers got the Saints to jump for a free play, he fired deep down the sideline for a big gainer to Watkins and the loudest cheer of the day from the Nitschke Field crowd.
"He's a gamer," Rodgers said. "One of those veterans that we've had here over the years where there are some times when you're not seeing a bunch of flash plays. And then what happens? We bring another team out here and he makes three or four plays out there and has his best practice at camp. So I'm really happy for Sammy."
4. Seeing running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon on the field together keeps getting more and more frequent.
The Packers' 1-2 backfield punch continued to do its share of work in the passing game, and Rodgers estimated it's realistic to think both could surpass 50 receptions this year.
Jones has recorded 49, 47 and 52 receptions the last three seasons in Head Coach Matt LaFleur's offense, and Dillon had 34 last year. Rodgers explained the Packers run "a lot of stuff" out of their two-back sets.
"We have runs to both of them, we have swing passes to them, we have screens, we have down-the-field stuff, we have action stuff, we have scat protection, we have six-man, seven-man protection stuff," he said. "There's a lot in the offense for those two guys.
"We've got to get our best 11 on the field and it seems like those two are both in the best 11."
5. There are two NFL officiating crews in town this week.
Presumably one will stay through Friday night's preseason game between the two teams. On balance, the first joint practice did not have much extracurricular activity, other than some shouting and such.
For whatever it's worth, the crew officiating the Packers' offense vs. the Saints' defense threw a lot more flags than the crew on the other end of the field monitoring the Saints' offense vs. the Packers' defense.
"It's going to be a great experience for our guys also having the officials here, trying to understand how they see certain things, making sure that we're using proper technique and staying disciplined with that technique," LaFleur said.