GREEN BAY — Moments before kickoff, the Green Bay Packers public relations department distributed a sheet of paper in the Lambeau Field press box listing each of the team’s players from the 89-man roster who wasn’t dressing for Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Houston Texans.
It was only a slight exaggeration to suggest that it would have been easier to list the names of the guys who were playing.
Holding 26 players out — including 16 of their 22 preferred starters on offense and defense, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers — the Packers’ 28-26 victory over the Texans was in no way, shape or form an accurate depiction of what first-year head coach Matt LaFleur’s team could look like when the games start to count on Sept. 5 against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
But for a team looking to put together its best 53-man roster to fit a new offensive system, augment a defense that got a major talent infusion during the offseason and improve special-teams units that have been perennially disappointing, it was a worthwhile first in-game look for LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst — even if there were no lasting, meaningful impressions to take away from the night.
“It really came down to the opportunity to play against the Texans in practice,” said LaFleur, referring to the two joint practices the teams had on Monday and Tuesday. “We gave those guys the majority of the reps, the 1s, and I thought they got the necessary work in throughout the week. And I didn’t want to put them at risk tonight.”
In addition to Rodgers, among the key players the Packers held out even though they were healthy were wide receiver Davante Adams, tight end Jimmy Graham, left tackle David Bakhtiari, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and right guard Billy Turner. Running backs Jamaal Williams (hamstring) and Aaron Jones (hamstring) and center Corey Linsley (biceps) did not play due to injuries but likely would have sat out anyway.
On defense, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, cornerback Jaire Alexander, defensive linemen Dean Lowry and Kenny Clark, inside linebacker Blake Martinez, safety Adrian Amos and nickel back Tramon Williams were all healthy scratches, while cornerback Kevin King (hamstring) and outside linebacker Preston Smith (back) missed the game with injuries.
All told, the six would-be opening-day starters who actually started the game were left guard Lane Taylor, wide receiver Geronimo Allison, third wideout Marquez Valdez-Scantling, safety Darnell Savage, inside linebacker Oren Burks and defensive end Montravius Adams. Burks left the game with a left shoulder injury during the first half.
Asked how much work he thought the starters needed in the coming weeks, LaFleur made it clear that the starters will play next week at the Baltimore Ravens and again on the team’s Canadian road trip to face the Oakland Raiders in Winnipeg, Manitoba. How much, though, is up in the air.
“I think that’s something we’re going to assess on a weekly basis,” LaFleur said. “I know going into this next game they’ll get some reps against the Ravens and we’ll just see how that game goes and how many reps they’re exactly going to get.”
As the Green Bay Packers mark the 100th anniversary of the August 1919 meeting in Green Bay where the team was first organized, Lee-Wisconsin …
One thing the Packers did get Thursday night was a good look at all three of their backup quarterbacks while Rodgers, in street clothes and wearing an earpiece that allowed him to listen in on the coaches’ communication system, watched from the sideline. LaFleur also did a terrific job of diffusing any lingering controversy from Rodgers’ comments about not liking the joint practices after LaFleur raved about them.
Asked if he spoke to Rodgers about his comments, LaFleur deadpanned, “I don’t talk to him anymore.” Then, he added, “There’s a lot of things that a lot of players don’t like about training camp. From his perspective, hey, I can understand where he’s coming from in some regard. Because (the Texans ran) about four different coverages, so it’s not overly complicated. It’s not like (Packers defensive coordinator Mike) Pettine throwing everything at you. So, I get it from his perspective. But, at the same time, there’s 10 other guys on the field with him on each play, and it was great for us.
“I always respect his opinion, just like I do all our players’ (opinions), but I still think it was beneficial for us.”
DeShone Kizer, last year’s backup to Rodgers, got off to a slow start but played the entire first half and finished the night 8 of 13 for 102 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass to Darrius Shepherd (111.7 passer rating). Tim Boyle, last year’s No. 3 quarterback, took over to star the third quarter and went 3 for 5 for 40 yards with a pair of touchdowns — a 1-yarder to J’Mon Moore and a 27-yarder to Allen Lazard (125.0 passer rating).
“After tonight, being able to do it in a live game, being able to extend some plays and really use my abilities within the system, I’m really confident,” said Kizer, who struggled in his two relief appearances in Rodgers’ place last season. “This is a system that’s very quarterback-friendly. … I’m looking forward to getting back into the film room, learning from the mistakes we had today and trying to go win the next few games.”
Rookie Manny Wilkins took the final 12 minutes of the game but didn’t get much chance to get things going, thanks in part to a Teo Redding fumble on a fourth-quarter kickoff return. Wilkins ended the night 0 of 3 with two scrambles for 8 yards before kneeling for a 1-yard loss to end the game.
“More than anything else was the command. That was what we were looking for,” said LaFleur, who coached from the sideline as promised — despite still being in an orthopedic walking boot to protect his surgically repaired left Achilles’ tendon, which he ruptured in June.. “I thought they commanded the huddle. It seemed to me the communication was on point. I thought we got up to the line — like I’ve been talking about — with urgency. I just thought the operation was clean.”
As for Kizer, LaFleur said, “It’s just about consistency on a daily basis, and not just in the game but in practice. I know it’s one game. I thought he did a nice job tonight, but it’s got to be each and every day.”
The defense, meanwhile, forced three of the Packers’ four takeaways on the night: Interceptions by Ka’Dar Hollman and Sullivan, and a fumble forced by Raven Greene and recovered by Will Redmond. Although the Texans outgained the Packers, 412-237, and LaFleur acknowledged that the tackling was “sloppy,” the takeaways saved the day.
“That’s what we talk about all the time — we’re going to be about the ball,” LaFleur said. “That was the difference in the game. We won the turnover battle. When you’re plus-3 on the turnover battle, you win the game.”