Jason Wilde offers three keys for the Green Bay Packers when they take on the Baltimore Ravens in their second preseason game Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
1. OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS
While Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur have conferred and decided that the starters will play, in LaFleur’s words, “a quarter or so,” that still leaves ample opportunity for the guys fighting for roster spots to show what they can do against the Ravens.
Gutekunst faces some challenging decisions at a variety of positions in the coming weeks, including at wide receiver, where barring injury, Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdes-Scantling are clearly going to be on the roster and former UW-Whitewater star Jake Kumerow (above) is likely to be, too. After that, it’s anyone’s guess, with receiver/returner Trevor Davis sidelined with a stinger injury, J’Mon Moore having continued his inconsistent play, Equanimeous St. Brown having a quiet camp, Allen Lazard making a legit challenge for a roster spot and Darrius Shepherd drawing deserved attention.
Beyond receiver, there’s a host of young cornerbacks in the mix for roster spots, uncertainty behind the starters on the offensive line, and a jumble of youngsters battling at inside linebacker in the wake of starter Oren Burks’ chest injury in the preseason opener last week against Houston. They’ll have two more chances after this: The team’s Aug. 22 field trip to Canada to face the Oakland Raiders in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the preseason finale against Kansas City on Aug. 29 will be their final opportunity before the Aug. 31 final roster reduction from 90 to 53.
“I think it’s wide-open, quite frankly. I know from my end of it, there really haven’t been any decisions made at all,” Gutekunst said this week. “I think we’re excited about the competition at a lot of spots, but I’ve been around long enough to know even in that fourth preseason game guys earn spots.
“I don’t think that’s good business on our part, to close the doors this early. There’s a lot of football to be played. Part of that also is being able to show up each and every day, be consistent, stay healthy and be out on that field. I think there’s a lot to prove for our guys before we get to that point where we’re ready to make those calls.”
2. TACKLING TROUBLES
Packers inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti scoffed at the notion, even though he’s an old-school coach who remembers when tackling was a colossal part of any NFL training camp.
“The expectation is the same, but the process is obviously different than it was awhile back,” Olivadotti replied last week when asked if missed tackles are to be expected in the preseason when scarcely any team — certainly not the safety-conscious, injury-unlucky Packers — tackles in practice anymore. “The progression of (working on it) probably has changed, but the expectations on our end haven’t changed.”
If that’s the case, then the Packers will be expecting a major improvement in that area against the Ravens after, by LaFleur’s count, they missed a whopping 24 tackles on defense and special teams against the Texans.
“In today’s NFL, there’s very few teams that are going to bring guys to the ground and have a bunch of tackling practices, full contact,” LaFleur confessed this week. “You have to get it in the drill work, and we stress it and drill it, and you have to drill it every day.
“The expectation is you always bring the guys to the ground. The standard is never going to change and it’s never an excuse. But I do think you get some younger guys in there that maybe aren’t quite accustomed to this level of play yet. It might take a minute for them to figure it out. But the standard is the standard.”
Added Gutekunst: Obviously in our first game, we didn’t particularly tackle very well on defense. So let’s see how we get to Game 2 to Game 3 to Game 4, and with individuals, specifically. Again, it’s the first game and first time going to the ground. But if those issues stay the same in Game 2, 3 and 4, then maybe it’s more of a problem.”
3. 'SHEP' STANDS OUT
Arguably the most impressive play in the Packers’ 28-26 victory over the Texans last week came from Darrius Shepherd (above), who reeled in a 14-yard touchdown pass from No. 2 quarterback DeShone Kizer with an acrobatic, body-contorting catch after Kizer’s throw sailed high. He not only made the grab, but he absorbed a hard hit by Houston cornerback Johnson Bademosi in the head and left shoulder and held on.
In preseason, that’s what it’s all about: Making plays that earn you more opportunities to make more plays. And that’s precisely what the undersized 5-foot-11, 186-pound Shepherd, an undrafted rookie from North Dakota State, has done.
“He’s done a nice job,” Gutekunst said. “He had a pretty productive year at a pretty good program — but a smaller program — (in NDSU). Obviously, he’s not the biggest player out there. His measurements aren’t typically what you’re looking for, didn’t run particularly fast at his pro day. But he’s a football player. He has that instinctual ability to find spots, get open and catch the ball.
“He’s really been a nice surprise for us so far. Again, a long way to go but he’s earned more opportunities.”
Shepherd knows all about earning his keep. While the Packers signed a host of undrafted rookies right after the draft, Shepherd had to come to their post-draft rookie minicamp as a tryout player and earn a spot on the 90-man roster with a strong showing during those two practices. Had he not gotten the scouting staff’s attention, who knows where he’d be.
“He certainly was one we were going to keep an eye on,” explained Gutekunst, whose scouts take a deep dive into the college film of every tryout player they invite before they arrive for the rookie camp — just to have an idea of which tryout guys have the best shot at earning the right to stay. “He had some productivity at North Dakota State. He’s versatile enough to be a receiver and play a slot receiver Matt wants to play with a little, but he was a pretty solid punt returner, too. He’s one of those more-you-can-do guys. They have a little more of advantage when it comes to that.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.