None of the players who will matter come title-winning time played for the Packers on Saturday night, but that doesn’t mean the game meant nothing. On Saturday evening, Jordan Love played his first NFL snaps since being drafted, Joe Barry coached his first game as defensive coordinator, and the special teams are still a complete mess. At least some things never change at 1265 Lombardi Avenue. A Texans team expected to be mostly hapless and helpless in the regular season put it on the Packers 26-7 to open the preseason Saturday night, but Love offered a silver lining.
Count Aaron Rodgers among the important Packers not partaking in the preseason opener, giving the Packers 2020 first-round pick a chance to take his first meaningful reps in the pros. Love finished 12/17 for 122 yards and a touchdown, showing command of the offense and a willingness to throw into coverage.
For his head coach, there’s still plenty of room to improve.
“I thought there were a lot of good things that he did,” LaFleur said of Love after the game.
“I thought he made really solid decisions. There were some balls that I thought he needs to rip a little more instead of aiming it.”
LaFleur said Love didn’t play even more because of the sack-fumble last in the first half where the second-year quarterback “dinged” his throwing shoulder. LaFleur wouldn’t offer any more detail on the injury.
For Love’s part, he showed an alacrity with the offense, working in and out of the huddle with aplomb. Not every operation was perfect, including a high snap that helped kill a drive and Love opening the wrong way on a fourth-and-short call, but Love also fired a strike down the seam to Jace Sternberger for 34 yards on 3rd-and-9 and hit Kylin Hill on a screen for his first NFL touchdown.
Love quipped “Wish it wasn’t a screen though.”
Devin Funchess, a 2020 free agent signing who opted out of the season because of COVID-19, shown as the other bright spot on offense. We’ve now seen Funchess twice in live action this summer and both teams he’s shown to be the kind of veteran presence the Packers hoped he could be when they signed him to a modest deal as a flier last offseason. He finished his debut in Green Bay with 70 yards on six catches including a one-hander from Jordan Love on an in-breaker.
The Packers will have difficult decisions to make at receiver and Funchess’ excellent camp and preseason likely makes those choices even more confounding, particularly because he’s unlikely to be a meaningful special teams player.
Defensively, Oren Burks stood out, leading the team with seven tackles, a sack and a pair of tackles for loss. His blitz timing proved to be impeccable and he shot gaps effectively to limit the Texans running game. He’s fighting to make the roster despite being a third-round pick just a few seasons ago and this kind of performance speaks to his talent and ability, reminding us how well he started his career back in 2018 before his first injury. If Burks can stay healthy, he has a real chance to compete for a roster spot thanks to his place as a core special teamer. If he has tangible value as a defender, that import to the team only ramps up.
On the other side of the coin, Burks’ ‘18 draft classmate Josh Jackson struggled mightily in a preseason vital to his future wearing the ‘G’ on his helmet. He consistently reacted slowly to the ball, got beat in front of him, and lacked the athleticism to make plays on the ball. If Jackson can’t make his game work in this defense, one where he’s asked to play off with his eyes to the quarterback, then the unfortunate reality signals he may not be able to play at all in the NFL in any meaningful way.
Rookie Amari Rodgers must count himself among those whose arrow points down after a preseason game as well. The third-round rookie from Clemson muffed a punt and let a third-down pass hit his hands. When the Packer signed Randall Cobb, LaFleur said they could focus more on Rodgers as a gadget player, but as a true receiver, Rodgers didn’t show much. For now, there’s no concern in that area as Rodgers will get plenty of time to develop, but in a game where fans want to see the rookie shine, it’s at least worth mentioning.
And speaking of rookies, first-round pick Eric Stokes gave up just one short catch on one target and then spend the rest of the game in street clothes, the latter of which looming as most important. With Kevin King back from injury, one might assume Stokes needs the reps with plenty to prove to win the starting job. Instead he barely played a quarter in his NFL debut, leaving players like the struggling Jackson and the ascending Kabion Ento, who snagged a pick in this game, to battle it out for roster spots.
We can’t make any sweeping decisions about what happened in one game, but Love looked the part of an NFL quarterback and Stokes, a player Green Bay clearly intends to count on in 2021, didn’t need extra work. This speaks to where this team is in 2021 and beyond. In a year where this might be the best win the Texans get all season, there is little to be learned from this game for the Packers. Still, Love’s debut and Stokes’ internal confidence have the Packers on a path that could help them sustain success long past this season.