BALTIMORE – As the Packers’ defense took the field for the first time at M&T Bank Stadium, Curtis Bolton paused a moment to appreciate the opportunity before him.
Less than four months ago, the 6-foot, 228-pound inside linebacker went undrafted out of Oklahoma. On Thursday night, Bolton was starting alongside Blake Martinez in Green Bay’s No. 1 defense against the Baltimore Ravens.
The result – a 26-13 loss to the Ravens – wasn’t what Bolton had in mind, but the rookie linebacker had a solid debut in relief of an injured Oren Burks, recording a team-high six tackles (four defense, two special teams).
Most important, Bolton was responsible for the biggest defensive play of the evening, intercepting Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley after Packers cornerback Tony Brown broke up a pass intended for Miles Boykin before halftime.
“I knew it was two-minute offense, so less runs,” Bolton said. “Just trusting what I do every day in practice, drop to where I needed to be. (Brown) made a great play on the ball, popped it up in the air. I went up and got it.”
With Burks on the mend, Bolton is currently competing with the likes of seventh-round pick Ty Summers, second-year linebacker James Crawford and practice-squad holdover Brady Sheldon for the spot next to Martinez.
After practicing with the starting defense this past week, Bolton said he leaned on Martinez for tips about the defense, and knowing when to take a risk at the right time.
Bolton was around the football all night. He forced Ravens starting quarterback Lamar Jackson into a third-down incompletion off a blitz to end the Ravens’ opening series and made two solo coverage tackles to stymie kickoff returns.
There still were areas Bolton wants to improve, though. He’s trying to strike the right balance between aggressiveness and passiveness when it comes to filling gaps and tackling.
Green Bay is still gathering data about how long it will be without Burks, a third-round pick out of Vanderbilt a year ago, but Martinez said he felt comfortable with the two series he played with Bolton.
“It felt good,” Martinez said. “It’s kind of a work-in-progress thing, watch the film and see what we can correct, get those little mistakes out of there. But yeah, it’s been good so far and he’s hungry to learn and get better.”
A one-year starter at Oklahoma who suffered a nasty ankle injury a year earlier as a junior, Bolton hasn’t forgotten the attention the Packers showed him in an otherwise quiet pre-draft process.
If the Packers call upon him to start again next week against the Oakland Raiders in Winnipeg, Bolton will be ready.
“It means the world to me (because) these reps don’t come by easy,” Bolton said. “I went undrafted. I assume nobody was really that high on me. Obviously there were some people who wanted me here. Now it’s my job to go show them why I’m here, why they came and got me.”
Bolton is the first to admit his interception, which set up a 41-yard Sam Ficken field goal, wouldn’t have been possible if not for Brown’s deflection.
A waiver claim from the Los Angeles Chargers after camp last September, Brown has established himself as the No. 4 cornerback at the moment behind Jaire Alexander, Kevin King and veteran Tramon Williams.
While Bolton didn’t know it was Brown at first who patted the ball up, it came as no surprise once he was told who was responsible.
“He’s had a hell of a camp, and from what I’ve heard, he’s improved tremendously,” Bolton said. “If you ask me, he’s starter-caliber in this league.”
Early returns: Allen Lazard and Darrius Shepherd continue to give the Packers a lot to think about when assessing their wide-open receiver competition.
Lazard led the Packers with three catches for 63 yards, all of which came from backup quarterback Tim Boyle, while Shepherd returned the opening kickoff 36 yards and hauled in a touchdown pass for a second straight week.
The two receivers contributed to the offense’s most successful series of the night, a seven-play, 84-yard drive in the third quarter that began with Darrin Hall’s 28-yard run.
With the Ravens biting on a play-action, Boyle first hit Lazard in the middle of the field for 25 yards and then found the former Iowa State standout again for 21 to set up Shepherd’s 6-yard touchdown catch in the back of the end zone two plays later.
“I think it was great for us to connect as a whole offense,” Lazard said. “To be able to move the ball 80-some yards down the field. Just for that whole drive. Obviously, it was eight or so plays. For us, to get that connection going and rhythm, I think was huge.”
Lazard (6-5, 227) and Shepherd (5-10, 186) are the biggest and smallest receivers on the Packers’ 90-man roster. Yet, the two undrafted players are pushing for jobs behind presumptive starters Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison.
The Green Bay Packers traveled to Baltimore to take on the Ravens in a preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium.
Shepherd, a heralded receiver at North Dakota State, was the one tryout player to receive a contract out of the Packers’ rookie minicamp in May. Although he’s been a pleasant surprise to this point, Shepherd knows it won’t matter unless he finishes strong.
“Right, you can never get comfortable,” Shepherd said. “I’m happy with what I’ve done but I have to do more. You can always improve on whatever it is. I have a lot to show and improve the next two weeks.”
Spot start: DeShone Kizer was told prior to Thursday morning’s walkthrough he would start in place of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was held out for precautionary reasons with back tightness.
Playing behind the Packers’ preferred starting offensive line, Kizer led the No. 1 unit for two series. While Kizer was disappointed he didn’t lead the offense to the end zone, the third-year quarterback engineered a nine-play, 50-yard drive that culminated in a Mason Crosby 43-yard field goal.
He started the series with back-to-back passes to receiver Jake Kumerow for a total of 36 yards before connecting with Allison on a 22-yard pass to penetrate the Ravens’ red zone.
“It was the first time in a long time where I felt as if I was going out there with real actual live bullets,” said Kizer, who finished 5-of-10 passing for 70 yards. “In the sense of having, once again, all of our ones in there, but also playing against the ones and seeing how fast the game actually is. For the most part, I felt as if I saw the game pretty well. I was able to execute for the majority of the plays we have.”