The Green Bay Packers ended their seven-month hiatus Saturday when they took rainy LP Field against the Tennessee Titans. Though several key players like Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson sat out in favor of increased playing time for unproven youngsters, Green Bay's preseason opener provided the first in-game look at the team's many roster adjustments. The Titans finished ahead on the scoreboard, but the Packers coaching staff saw plenty of positives in their team's 2014 debut.
Strong first showing for new look offensive line
Mike McCarthy's proclamation that the 2014 offensive line could be the best of his Green Bay tenure is looking good so far.
The Packers already knew what to expect from the guard tandem of Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, and after starting 16 games as a rookie David Bakhtiari appears primed to take a jump in performance as well. The only question marks hovered over oft-injured right tackle Bryan Bulaga and new starting center JC Tretter.
Saturday's game marked Bulaga's first non-intrasquad game since November 4, 2012. In the roughly 21 months since, the offensive lineman has endured a significant hip injury as well as a torn ACL. Other than the bulky brace on his left knee, Bulaga looked like the same player who dominated at right tackle in 2011 and '12. In the three runs to Bulaga's side, the Packers accrued 18 yards.
JC Tretter, the offensive line's newest addition, also had a strong 2014 debut. Like Bulaga, Tretter's last true live snaps came back in November 2012. However, Tretter's appearance Saturday was his first at center, a position he hadn't played until coming off the physically unable to perform list midway through last season. Tretter seemed to create a push on nearly every snap with the starting unit. He also landed one of the key second-level blocks on James Starks' 20-yard touchdown gallop that put the Packers ahead 7-0.
It's worth noting that the Titans are in the midst of a transition to a 3-4 defense and are experience growing pains because of it. It's also true that the Packers' offense only attempted one pass before pulling most of the starters, making it impossible to evaluate the pass protection. That said, Green Bay has to be encouraged by the early returns from its new look offensive line. If the group follows the Tennessee game with another strong performance, they're going to make their head coach look very smart.
The offensive backfield is already looking crowded
Eddie Lacy spent Saturday night on the sidelines and James Starks was pulled after the opening series, but the Packers have to like what they saw out of their running back depth. DuJuan Harris opened the game with a 40-yard kickoff return. Add in a nifty 11-yard run behind the No. 2 offensive line, and it appears Harris has reclaimed the form that earned him so much praise following the 2012 season. Rajion Neal came into the game with considerably less fanfare, but the undrafted rookie amassed 39 yards on only five carries including a 12-yard touchdown run. Though he left the game with an undisclosed injury, the 5-11 220 lbs. Neal fits the mold of a Packers ball carrier.
Counting fullback, the Packers may retain as few as four backs during the final cut down. With John Kuhn and the aforementioned Lacy and Starks taking up three of those jobs, Harris and Neal find themselves in a heated competition for a roster spot.
Flynn remains in driver's seat for No. 2 quarterback, but Tolzien is bridging the gap
Throughout training camp, Matt Flynn has displayed the best grasp of the offense of any of the backup quarterbacks. He quickly progresses through reads and in camp has demonstrated improved arm strength, the result of a finally healed right elbow. And he played decently in the preseason opener all things considered. The wet conditions led to a few dropped passes, but for the most part Flynn looked every bit the solid if unspectacular backup he proved to be during Aaron Rodgers' lengthy absence in 2013.
While a fair bit of distance still separates Flynn from his competitors, Scott Tolzien made considerable headway via an eight for 12, 124-yard performance.
During his stint as the "next man up" at quarterback last season, Tolzien failed to find the middle ground between aggressive downfield passing and turnover control. Part of his struggles came as the result of a shortened learning period as he only arrived in Green Bay following the conclusion of the preseason. Now with a full offseason in the system, Tolzien looks more confident and capable of leading the offense. While a productive showing against third stringers can only go so far, Tolzien at a minimum made a strong argument for the Packers retaining three quarterbacks on their 53. Though he'll need a few more convincing performances if he hopes to challenge Flynn for the No. 2 job.
The Packers are still looking for a punt returner to relieve Cobb and Hyde
Though he won't see the field in 2014, Jared Abbrederis played a part in the Packers' appalling punt-return game against Tennessee. A fifth-round draft selection this past May, Abbrederis was expected to compete for the punt return job. With a torn ACL sidelining him for the remainder of his rookie year, the Packers were forced to trot out underprepared alternatives in his stead.
Fellow rookie Davante Adams spent little time fielding punts in training camp prior to Saturday's game. However, it was the Fresno State product back deep on the Titans' first punt of the night. While the pouring rain was largely responsible for Adams' first muffed punt (nearly every returner on either team mishandled a punt or kickoff), it cannot be blamed for his second muff later in the quarter. Backed up inside his own 10-yard line, Adams made the ill-advised decision to field the punt rather let it bounce into the end zone. The Titans recovered, leading to a Shonn Greene touchdown run one play later. The special teams mishaps overshadowed what was otherwise a solid two-catch debut for the Packers' 2014 second-round pick.
The multiple mistakes were enough to convince the Packers to send starting safety Micah Hyde back on Tennessee's next punt, a shank that travelled merely 19 yards before landing out of bounds. Hyde would remain on return duty for the remainder of the evening.
The Packers would like to avoid exposing starters on returns. It's a potentially dangerous play that could sideline an important player for part or all of a season. But if they cannot locate a reserve they trust to field the ball safety and make smart decisions, the team will have little choice but to use Hyde or Randall Cobb. There are still three preseason games remaining, however. That's plenty of time for some back-of-the-roster prospect to demonstrate competent return ability and prevent the Packers from exposing a highly-valuable player on special teams.