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Game notes: Rookie pass-catchers help fuel Packers' offense

Dontayvion Wicks, Tucker Kraft record career days in loss to Tampa Bay

Green Bay Packers TE Tucker Kraft
Green Bay Packers TE Tucker Kraft

GREEN BAY – Mounting injuries have presented the Packers' offense with both a challenge and an opportunity this season.

Tasked with replacing two of its biggest targets in Luke Musgrave (abdomen) and Christian Watson (hamstring) over the past month, Green Bay has leaned on tight end Tucker Kraft and receiver Dontayvion Wicks as the next men up at their respective positions.

While the Packers came up short Sunday in a disappointing 34-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field, their two rookies turned in career days to help keep their team in the game.

Kraft got things started with a 5-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter before elevating over a defender on a 36-yard reception to key Green Bay's next scoring drive in the second quarter.

"I run every route like I'm expecting to catch the ball," said Kraft, who finished with 57 receiving yards and the TD. "Get my eyes to the quarterback. If it's coming to me, I try to obviously catch it and then secure it and then everything after that is just all improv."

If Kraft was the early spark, Wicks was the flame that ignited in the second half as all six of his catches for a career-high 97 yards came in the final 30 minutes.

Four of those receptions went for 16 or more yards, the most "explosive" catches by a Packer in a game this season. The rookie fifth-round pick currently leads Green Bay with 16.

Wicks is the only Green Bay rookie since 2000 to record four explosive receptions in a game, and his 16 on the season are tied for the most by a Packers rookie in that span (WR Greg Jennings, 2006).

Not bad considering, as recently as Wednesday, it was unclear if Wicks would be able to play after injuring his ankle in last Monday's game against the New York Giants. But the rookie fifth-round pick was back on the field Thursday and dragging defenders for extra yards by Sunday.

"The team needed me, so I'm going to do whatever I can do help the team," Wicks said. "I felt like I could go, and it wouldn't limit me. It's going to hurt but I look at it as it's either hurting or it's hurt and I wasn't hurt, so I was able to play and be me, so I went out."

Wicks' big plays contributed to both of Green Bay's second-half scoring drives. His 22-yard catch on third-and-5 keyed the 11-play, 75-yard series that culminated in a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Reed to get the Packers within three, 20-17, midway through the third quarter.

Wicks then opened the fourth quarter with back-to-back receptions of 20 and 19 yards to push the Packers into scoring territory. On several of those completions, Wicks powered through defenders to squeeze out a few extra yards.

Banged-up or not, both Kraft and Wicks agreed their job is to provide juice to the offense. On a tough day against the Buccaneers, the two rookies provided a glimpse of promise.

"There's a lot of bigger DBs in the league. It's just tough on tough," Wicks said. "Whoever's the most physical and wants it more, that's who's going to get it. Like I said, that's something I go by. You've got to show me you're tougher than me while we're out there. Talking ain't going to get it. It's all in action."

Sacks and setbacks: The Packers' defense finished with a season-high five sacks against Baker Mayfield and the Bucs but also struggled to get off the field on third down.

Tampa Bay converted seven of its 11 third-down opportunities, while Mayfield threw for 150 yards and two touchdowns in those situations. It also converted on its only fourth-down attempt.

"We had them in a lot of whether it was second-and-long and third-and-long situations and couldn't get off the field," said defensive lineman Kenny Clark, who had two of Green Bay's five sacks.

"Any defense, allowing them to keep the drives going and keep us on the field, it's tough. We gotta be better there. Look at the film, be critical of ourselves and figure it out."

Mayfield finished with a maximum 158.3 passer rating after completing 22 of 28 passes for 381 yards and four touchdowns.

Check out photos from the Week 15 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023.

Enagbare's impact: Things started well enough for the defense, as second-year linebacker Kingsley Enagbare earned a strip sack of Mayfield in the first quarter and recovered the fumble at the Tampa Bay 5-yard line.

Green Bay converted the takeaway into Kraft's touchdown and its only lead of the game.

"Seeing his growth, seeing his ascension, it really just brings a smile to my face," said linebacker Rashan Gary of Enagbare. "I see him come in watching film from Monday to Sunday, and when that work that you put in pays off, man, it's great. Especially a guy like J.J. that's been working and getting better week in and week out."

Another rookie accolade: With six catches for 52 yards and a TD against the Buccaneers, Reed surpassed Packers Hall of Famer Billy Howton for the second-most receptions in a season by a Packers rookie.

Reed now sits at 54, just one behind the 35-year-old record held by Sterling Sharpe. The rookie second-round pick left with a toe injury but said afterward, "It's not broke. It's just a little sore."

"That's just the sport of ball," Reed said. "In college I had some weeks like this, as well, because I'd get 80 plays. It's just the games stacking up in the league. You've just got to learn how to take care of your body, really."

Reed (54), Musgrave (33) and Wicks (31) are the first rookie trio in team history to each register 30-plus receptions in a season.


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