GREEN BAY – Jace Sternberger was willing to let it go, but his teammates definitely weren’t.
It didn’t take long for the first of two joint practices between the Packers and Texans to get a little rough on Monday. During a fairly early 11-on-11 period, Sternberger – Green Bay’s rookie tight end – caught a pass on a crossing route and took a shot from Houston rookie cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr.
The force of the blow knocked Sternberger’s helmet off, and then Johnson made it worse, taunting and celebrating by flexing over Sternberger for a moment.
Soon enough, Packers offensive lineman Lucas Patrick was leading the cavalry to Sternberger’s defense and a lot of players gathered on the north end of Ray Nitschke Field with nothing else really happening.
What transpired wasn’t new Head Coach Matt LaFleur’s idea behind hosting a joint practice in Green Bay for the first time in 14 years, and he talked with Houston coach Bill O’Brien about the incident as the workout continued.
“I thought there was no place for that,” LaFleur said. “We addressed it. It’s an unfortunate deal, because I was pretty clear with our guys we’re not doing that stuff.
“That particular play, that’s not what we want to be about.”
Sternberger, who said he got his helmet knocked off last year in college on a similar play, got checked out for a concussion but was back in action relatively quickly. He said he mainly got the wind knocked out of him.
“That’s just football at the end of the day,” Sternberger said. “That’s a cliché thing to say, but it’s football and it happens.”
It also wasn’t his first run-in with Johnson. The Packers’ third-round pick made sure to throw in the comment that his Texas A&M squad beat the second-round pick Johnson’s Kentucky team in SEC play last year.
Sternberger’s teammates weren’t in quite the same forgiving or joking mood. Veterans Davante Adams, Billy Turner and Jimmy Graham were among those calling out Johnson for crossing the line. Johnson was sent “to the showers” by O’Brien, to use the head coach’s phrase.
Adams suggested the hit would have drawn a fine in a game, and Patrick said the on-field official (an actual NFL crew is in Green Bay for the workouts and Thursday’s preseason game) confirmed it would have been flagged. The third-year undrafted offensive lineman from Duke, who’s been known to come to his teammates’ defense before, said his reaction was just a “team-first” mentality.
Patrick indicated it was Johnson’s action after the hit as much as the hit itself that set him off.
“Yeah, that’s the … it’s football. We’re playing a contact sport. There’s going to be bang-bang plays. I get that,” he said. “I’m not out here pointing fingers. It’s just the extra-curriculars I don’t appreciate.
“You have to let Jace know, too. He’s new to the league, but he’s got to know that we’ve got his back.”
Sternberger certainly appreciated that.
“Yeah, that was by far the coolest part,” he said. “Everybody’s really about what they say about us being a family. Everybody wants us to be a player-led team, and I think everybody showed that today.
“It’s one of those things, as long I’m getting the ball and getting opportunities like that, I’ll take whatever comes with it.”
Aside from the scuffle, the practice provided the more intense, competitive environment LaFleur was looking for.
Among the highlights were several one-on-one battles between Bryan Bulaga and J.J. Watt and multiple throws from quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and DeShone Kizer up the seam to the tight ends and fullback Danny Vitale.
Both sides of the ball were able to get different looks from an opponent for the first time, and the work on special teams was a notch above, too, with the kickoff and kickoff-return units going full speed for the first time.
“I think it’s critical,” LaFleur said of making the special-teams drills more game-like before the first preseason game. “There were some good collisions out there.”
The players liked getting a chance to compete against someone other than their own teammates as well. A second joint practice is slated for 10:15 a.m. Tuesday and then the two teams will open the preseason on Thursday night at Lambeau Field.
“It’s good to see different guys,” said Patrick, who stressed what happened Monday is done and over with as far as he’s concerned. “Going against Kenny, Dean, Looney, Keke, all these dudes, you see them every day, and you almost get to the point where you know each other too well.
“So it’s good to just work on our stuff, our bread and butter. I thought it was great and I’m real excited for tomorrow too.”