GREEN BAY – Joint practices make their long-awaited return to Green Bay this week, as the Packers will host the New York Jets for two public workouts at Ray Nitschke Field.
Head Coach Matt LaFleur is a big proponent of practicing against another team, which played a major role in the Packers welcoming the Houston Texans to town in 2019. It marked the first time Green Bay practiced against an NFL squad in 14 years.
LaFleur hoped to do it again last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic extinguished those hopes when the league canceled the preseason and required teams to remain stationed at their own facilities during an abbreviated training camp.
With teams again permitted to conduct joint practices, it came as no surprise that the Packers scheduled the Jets, given the close bond between LaFleur and his staff, and the New York Jets' under first-year head coach Robert Saleh.
"It's just always great when you can incorporate more of a game-type pressure in practice, but not putting your players more at risk because there's nobody going to the ground and tackling," LaFleur said. "So, I think it's just going to be a really good evaluation tool for us."
LaFleur and Saleh have been close friends for more than 15 years. After meeting as graduate assistants at Central Michigan, Saleh helped give LaFleur his big break in coaching when put in a good word with Houston Texans' coaching staff, which was looking to hire an offensive quality control coach in 2008.
That introduction to Kyle Shanahan, the Texans' offensive coordinator at the time, created NFL inroads for LaFleur in both Washington and Atlanta, while Saleh rose through the defensive coaching ranks before reuniting in 2017 with Shanahan in San Francisco.
After a successful four-year run as the 49ers' defensive coordinator, Saleh was hired as the Jets' new head coach in January. One of his first moves? Tabbing LaFleur's younger brother, Mike, to be his offensive coordinator.
Even Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has ties to Saleh, whom he coached with in Jacksonville for two seasons.
"I think we're really lucky because the staff that's coming in here, a lot of us are very close to," Hackett said. "So, I think it's going to allow us to probably do a little bit more. These opportunities are so great because they're controlled and you're facing a defense that is not your own defense. So you get a look at something completely different. I think it's just so awesome for all the players to get a different look."
LaFleur prefers the joint sessions because it allows starters to work against another team without the heightened risk of injury in preseason games. It's one of the reasons the Packers have felt comfortable sitting their established veterans the past few years.
There still is some risk, though. Two years ago, Lonnie Johnson's hit on then-rookie Jace Sternberger across the middle during a team period led to a scuffle between the two teams.
Expectations like that taught LaFleur and his staff some valuable lessons. This time around, the Packers plan on avoiding one-on-one drills, because of how they often raise the temperature of practice before team periods. LaFleur also admitted it might not be the best idea to run full-speed kickoff/kickoff return periods like the Packers did against the Texans.
At the same time, many of the players who were on the Packers' roster in 2019 see the benefit of working against another team. With one fewer preseason game now, it's an extra opportunity to see how they stack up against an opponent.
"I think it's a great opportunity for us to get a litmus test of where we are as a defense versus another team," linebacker Oren Burks said. "It's kind of an extension of a preseason game. You're seeing them and picking up on tendencies and things like that. I'm excited to compete against another great team in the Jets and just continue to get better."
Despite the familiarity between the staffs, it's unlikely either team pulls the curtain back on any exotic looks given the nature of the NFL. However, the joint sessions still serve as a valuable tool in both player development and evaluation.
"I think it's really good for your quarterbacks because obviously you can control the situations and keep them clean and not get them hit," General Manager Brian Gutekunst said. "You get quality reps that way. For us, just being able to stay here in Green Bay and have another team on your field for a few days really gets you a chance to evaluate another team and see how your guys kind of stack up."
LaFleur expects a highly competitive workweek on the field, but also is looking forward to connecting with Saleh, his brother and the rest of the Jets' coaching staff.
"We've got our whole families coming in town," LaFleur said. "My parents, my sister-in-law and her kids, they'll all be staying at the house. We'll get some opportunities to hang out in the evening. I think we're going to try to do something with the Jets staff one of the nights and just enjoy some good camaraderie."