GREEN BAY – Head Coach Matt LaFleur plans to play the Packers’ starters for “a quarter or so” in Thursday night’s preseason game at Baltimore.
For quarterback Aaron Rodgers, that means three priorities for the debut of the first unit in game action this summer – health, communication and efficiency.
“It’ll be a good test for our first time running this offense in another stadium, on the road, against a really good defense,” Rodgers said after Tuesday’s practice.
Unlike a usual preseason game, the Packers are expecting some schematic wrinkles from the Ravens, an accomplished defensive unit that finished first in the league last year in yards allowed and second in points.
It was probably no coincidence that one of the key 11-on-11 periods in Tuesday’s practice was a third-down blitz drill, with Rodgers and center Corey Linsley orchestrating protection calls at the line of scrimmage and adjusting on the fly.
LaFleur, who said top running back Aaron Jones would still be held out of action for now, noted cutting down on penalties and mental errors from the first preseason game is a high priority, and he expects fewer from the No. 1 units.
“We’re hoping to run a clean operation, obviously do all the things we’re coached to,” Linsley said. “Baltimore is known to throw a bunch of stuff at you, especially in the preseason. It’ll be a great opportunity to get some looks that are unconventional and could be difficult.”
The Packers’ No. 1 defense will have a challenge of its own in Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, particularly after having so much trouble containing Houston’s Joe Webb in last week’s preseason opener.
Jackson is a scrambler like Webb but with a lot more speed. The Ravens’ young QB, who led a late-season run to the playoffs last year, also executes plenty of designed runs that take advantage of his elusiveness.
Green Bay’s tackling left a lot to be desired last week (LaFleur counted 24 missed tackles on the film), and now the starters are getting their first game action against a quarterback known for being hard to bring down.
“We did well in the turnover margin last week, we struggled in the tackling game,” veteran cornerback Tramon Williams said. “You obviously want to see the turnovers continue but you want to see the tackling get better. If we can put those things together, we’ll be a really good defense.”
The game will also serve as a major trial to find inside linebacker Oren Burks’ replacement. General Manager Brian Gutekunst suggested on Tuesday that Burks’ chest injury may not be long-term, but beyond that he didn’t specify.
For however long it may be, a starting companion next to Blake Martinez is needed in the middle of the defense, and the top candidates heading into Thursday’s game are rookies Curtis Bolton (undrafted from Oklahoma) and Ty Summers (seventh-round pick from TCU).
“It’ll be a good growing point for whoever I end up playing next to,” Martinez said. “It’s time to step into that live action.”
The action in Tuesday’s practice was as lively as it gets, starting with the aforementioned third-down blitz period. Rodgers was getting the ball out quickly to various hot reads with both horizontal and vertical throws. A touchdown pass deep down the middle to tight end Jimmy Graham, who spun around to catch a ball thrown purposely behind him, was one of the prettiest plays of camp.
The defense turned the tables in the two-minute drill, winning the possession pitting the first units against one another despite a leaping catch by Davante Adams on a fourth-down bomb that temporarily kept the drive alive.
“When we have that D-line that they can throw at us in the two-minute situation of the Smiths and Rashan (Gary) and Kenny (Clark), that’s a pretty tough four-man rush,” Rodgers said. “They’re playing good. When they’re playing good, it kind of picks the level up of the entire practice. We were getting after them pretty good today. The competition’s been great.”
The Packers haven’t had any marathon practices going 2½ hours or more as they have in past years, but Rodgers said the competitive level and tempo of the shorter workouts has turned up.
Enough for the head coach, who has pleaded for more urgency on multiple occasions? Almost.
“I still want more energy,” LaFleur said. “I still want more juice, and I was getting on our coaches, because I really think it starts with us as a coaching staff. We’ve got to bring it every day if we expect the same out of our players.”