The success or failure of the 2019 Packers season will hinge on eraser. Erasing the last-stage failures of Mike McCarthy. Erasing the dysfunction between head coach and quarterback. Erasing the special teams blunders and defensive shortcomings.
We’ll have to wait on offensive design returns from Matt LaFleur, as well as his success as a coach with Aaron Rodgers, but the defense and special teams showed up Thursday night against the Texans in a 28-26 win.
A season after Green Bay struggled to create big plays, they got them every which way against Houston. Rookie standout cornerback Ka’Dar Hollman made a diving interception to end a long drive to open the defensive stands. Equanimeous St. Brown recovered a muffed punt for a touchdown and then Will Redmond took the ball from Taiwan Jones to force a fumble. And Chandon Sullivan opened the second half with a pick of his own.
That’s the version of Mike Pettine’s defense we expect to see. While we have no idea what to expect from Shawn Mennenga, early returns show signs of shaking off the ugly history under Ron Zook.
Ok. Deep breath.
It’s Week 1 of the preseason, no one of consequence is really playing, there’s no scouting or game plans, and penalties always abound. Green Bay’s tackling troubles continued which would be normal for most teams in a given season, but given the woes in that department for the Packers going back to Dom Capers, the lack of improvement there is troubling.
There’s ultimately not much to be learned from these games in terms of projecting forward. Find the players who stand out in ways good and bad, stay mostly healthy, and move on.
Despite the turnovers, Green Bay’s defense couldn’t keep Joe Webb in the pocket, a product of man coverage and a wily 10-year scrambling veteran. Reading into those issues this early would be a fool’s errand, but it’s certainly worth monitoring considering how often Pettine wants to play man. Houston converted its first six third downs, another trend worth monitoring given the Packers’ struggles there last season, but a number of those conversions came off the aforementioned Webb’s scrambles.
The minutia and stat lines though, are less important than impressions and touchstones. Rashan Gary played crucial early snaps and demonstrated the good and the bad from his scouting report. His first-step burst and athleticism are off the charts, but he’s not a nuanced pass rusher yet and still sticks to blocks too often. Fellow first-round pick Darnell Savage barely played, but got early reps as he eases back into the fold.
It was rookie seventh-round pick Ty Summers who stood out most defensively for the Packers. He finished with a whopping nine tackles in the first half alone, more than doubling up the next closest player in the content. His scouting report extolled his athleticism and nose for the ball and those showed up on the field in his first live action in the NFL. His coverage skills were the question and he didn’t get many opportunities there, but as a downhill linebacker, his burst and instincts should make him very difficult to keep off the roster.
With many of the top skill players out, Dexter Williams showed the burst Green Bay saw when they drafted him, while adding a little versatility with a nice catch-and-run on a screen play. He finished with 80 yards on 15 touches and 4.4 per carry average. As the preseason progresses, don’t be surprised if he’s a player fighting for more playing time.
Speaking of young, talented playmakers, Big Bob Tonyan flashed yet again as a move tight end with an impresive catch but the seam but it wasn’t just the receiving aspect. Tonyan clearly improved as a blocker, an essential step in his development for this offense. If he wants to get snaps for LaFleur, he has to be able to block as well as make plays in the passing game. That receiving ability he showed last preseason endures.
With Aaron Rodgers out, DeShone Kizer started and played well, finishing 8 of 13 for 102 yards and a touchdown. He threw some darts to the middle of the field with confidence and showed why he’s in the driver’s seat for the QB2 job.
On the other end of the spectrum, J’Mon Moore’s nightmare start to his career continued Thursday night. Slips, drops, and double-catches marked his game yet again, including a dropped touchdown. Even the touchdown catch he had, came after that drop and included a bobble. His confidence must be in the Lambeau Field toilets at this point, a sad state of affairs for the former fourth-round pick who has been clearly outshined by his draft class mates to this point in their careers. With roster spots at a premium, Moore hasn’t played his way onto the 53-man roster at this point. He’ll have time to turn that around, but he probably has two or three receivers currently ahead of him in the pecking order for that final spot.
One of them, undrafted free agent Darrius Shepherd, scored a touchdown on a leaping grap for his first NFL catch. The former North Dakota State standout has been playing on some of the core special teams units and has experience as a returner. If he can keep making plays as a receiver, he’s a dark horse in a crowded receiver room.
With nearly every key starter sitting, the Packers escaped Week 1 without injuries of note. Oren Burks left the game with an injury and did not return, but that isn’t expected to be serious. Hit your touchstones, try to limit penalties, and get out of the game with no injuries. If you can win, that’s gravy. Green Bay managed it all, plus hinted at a defense that could be more capable of creating splash plays than a year ago, even without its top players.
Technically this was the first week of the preseason for the Packers, but the real games start next week when the starters play. Landmark checked and rust knocked off. Even though McCarthy isn’t at the helm anymore, the Packers’ goal now will be to stack success.