GREEN BAY – Davante Adams was out and the Packers needed to run the ball.
So it was the perfect time, down in Dallas, for Green Bay’s tight ends to put together their best collective effort of the season so far, which bodes well as the offense continues to find its footing in the first half of 2019.
Marcedes Lewis, Jimmy Graham and Robert Tonyan were significant factors in the victory over Dallas in both blocking for Aaron Jones’ 107-yard, four-touchdown rushing day, and catching six passes for 81 yards.
Their blocks on the edge were key to Jones getting around the corner on a number of occasions, and they accounted for more than one-third of Aaron Rodgers’ 238 passing yards in the 34-24 triumph.
With Adams still iffy for Monday night vs. Detroit and the ground game needing to build on its top performance, the tight ends will be counted on to keep it up.
“They did a phenomenal job (Sunday) as a whole, as a unit, putting a complete game together both in the run and the pass,” tight ends coach Justin Outten said this week. “I was extremely excited to actually put it on video, because on a weekly basis you’ll see it at practice, and it’s just a matter of time before it all gels and comes together. They were hitting their targets and doing a great job as far as competing and getting physical.”
The variety of ways they made an impact stood out as well. They were called up on to block at the point of attack as well as downfield. Tonyan made a leaping 23-yard catch down the sideline on an extended play (before exiting with a hip injury). Graham got open for Rodgers on a scramble, too, and grabbed one on a third-down crossing route to move the chains. Lewis took a throwback screen 15 yards to get the ball in the red zone.
The tight ends actually out-produced the wide receivers (four catches, 55 yards) in the passing game and were more efficient, too, with all six targeted passes for tight ends being caught.
“(It was) very important, especially when you look at the number of receiver catches that we had in that game,” Rodgers said. “It was a lot of tight ends and running backs. It’s been really important having those three guys each doing something a little bit differently and then being productive in those opportunities.”
Head Coach Matt LaFleur has packages that employ one, two or three tight ends at any given time. Lewis said they’ll all take reps in practice on the plays with one tight end, and they’ll mix up the two-tight-end combos to keep everybody ready for how they might be used in the game.
That paid off against Dallas when Tonyan was sidelined by the hip injury, and he hasn’t practiced yet this week, so a heavy workload could fall on Lewis and Graham again. The veterans will take whatever comes.
“The buy-in, the energy in that room…Tonyan went out, but me and Jimmy, that’s what, 24 years of ball together?” Lewis said. “We push each other, and we feed off each other. We know what we look like standing next to each other out there. It just felt good for us both to be making plays in the pass game, in the run game. It’s a good thing.”
Each tight end still has his primary strengths. Lewis is the best blocker of the bunch, Graham remains a key red-zone target with two TD catches this season (and opportunities for more), and Tonyan has been learning as much as he can in all areas from both seasoned pros.
Veteran offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga has enjoyed a close-up look at what Lewis, the 14-year veteran, has meant in the run game and pass protection lining up next to him on a regular basis. Bulaga has yet to allow a sack this season going up against a gauntlet of top edge rushers, and if the play calls for Lewis to take his man every once in a while, he has no concerns.
“He’s a very large human being,” Bulaga said of the 6-foot-6, 267-pound Lewis. “It’s not a cakewalk for defensive ends to line up against Marcedes and win. And he’s smart. He’s seen a lot of football. He understands it. He gets angles. He’s very smart with the scheme that we have. He knows where his help is, he knows where he needs to be, and it shows.”
Added LaFleur: “I can’t tell you how much he means to our locker room. He’s a pro’s pro.”
The season hasn’t been without its bumps, though. The position had some costly lapses in loss to Philadelphia, as Lewis allowed a strip-sack by Derek Barnett and Graham failed to haul in two passes in goal-to-go situations, for example.
But the reliability and overall impact went up a notch in Dallas, and while the Packers hope Tonyan’s injury is just a brief interruption to the progress he was making, if last week’s collective performance is the new standard for the group, the offense as a whole will keep moving forward.
“No question,” Lewis said. “I think obviously our goal is to get better every game. With the parity in this league, there’s very little room for error. You want to continue to be on the rise and crescendo towards the end, and I felt like as a tight end we put our best product out there so far.”
The Green Bay Packers practiced inside the Don Hutson Center ahead of the Week 6 matchup at Lambeau Field.