The Green Bay Packers never have asked Andrew Quarless to be Jermichael Finley.
They didn’t do it in 2010 when a knee injury prematurely ended Finley’s season, nor did they pressure him to fill the enigmatic tight end’s shoes after he suffered a career-threatening neck injury in October.
All they wanted from the fourth-year reserve tight end was more production, a message communicated by Packers tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot in a meeting this past week.
Quarless took the request to heart and responded with a career day in the Packers’ 22-21 win over Atlanta, finishing with six catches on seven targets for 66 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter that proved to be the winning score.
Since losing Finley, the Packers’ tight ends have had their moments, but largely have been inconsistent. On Sunday, Quarless led a unit that produced 10 catches for 101 yards to aid quarterback Matt Flynn.
“(We) did talk this week, and one of my biggest things was finish,” said Quarless, who had 17 catches for 130 yards and zero touchdowns prior to Sunday. “Me and (Fontenot) both felt like I could just finish harder whether it was a block or whether it was a route. Everything’s finishing really taking every play all out, and that’s really what I took pride in.”
Quarless and Fontenot have bonded since the 47-year-old assistant switched from coaching running backs to tight ends prior to the 2012 season. At the time of the switch, Quarless was rehabbing from a gruesome knee injury he suffered against the New York Giants in December 2011.
Like Quarless, Fontenot tore his anterior cruciate ligament midway through his 16-year NFL career and understood the difficulty involved with restarting an NFL career. Following a slow start, the 25-year-old looked more like his old self against Atlanta.
Along with a 21-yard catch on second-and-17 to keep a third-quarter scoring drive moving, Quarless nabbed his second career touchdown on a back-shoulder throw from Flynn in the fourth quarter. It was his first since a 28-24 win over Minnesota on Oct. 24, 2010.
“It gives us that extra boost,” said running back Eddie Lacy of the tight end production. “We have receivers who can catch. Tight ends making plays and it opens up the running game. When you’re running good, it opens up the pass for them, so it’s starting to click. We just have to finish out the same way.”
Finley had 25 catches for 300 yards and three touchdowns through his first six games. Entering Sunday, Green Bay’s other four tight ends had combined for just 21 catches for 223 yards and one touchdown in six contests without him.
As the Packers try to stick in the NFC North picture without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the tight ends feel they showed they can produce without Finley.
“I think this game right here was great for the tight ends,” Quarless said. “I think they really took a step forward as a group. Everybody caught passes, everybody played a part. One of the things we talked about when J-Mike went down is we need all hands on deck. We had everyone step up. I’m proud of my group.”
Those clamoring for personnel changes on defense were not disappointed on Sunday.
The Packers sat third-year cornerback Davon House and inserted veteran Jarrett Bush as a slot corner in the dime subpackage, and then replaced M.D. Jennings in the second quarter with second-year safety Sean Richardson following a shaky start.
Bush made two key fourth-down stops during the Falcons’ final two possessions, including a game-ending interception of quarterback Matt Ryan, while Richardson worked opposite of Morgan Burnett with a tackle and no glaring mistakes.
Richardson, who started the season on the physically unable to perform list after undergoing neck surgery, possesses a bigger frame at 6-foot-2, 218 pounds than the 6-foot, 195-pound Jennings, who has generated only one turnover in 23 consecutive starts.
Whether that equates to a starting spot for Richardson going forward, the 23-year-old wasn’t sure.
“That’s up to the coaches,” said Richardson, who had one tackle. “We have great safeties. All of us have the athleticism, ability and smarts to start. It’s just up to them. There’s no lack of anything from one player to another.”
The Packers were in the unusual position of getting booed by their own crowd as they trailed 21-10 at halftime.
The circumstances couldn’t have been more strange. Driving with less than 2 minutes left in the first half, Flynn had a tipped pass intercepted by Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and returned for a 71-yard touchdown after his teammate, Paul Worrilow, kicked it to keep it from touching the ground.
The Packers’ offense got the ball back with 14 seconds remaining, but threw two incompletions before being booed into the locker room.
“That’s the first in five years for me, but you have to expect that,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. “They’re called fanatics. They come here to watch good football, and that first half was not good football — both sides of the ball. We responded, and they cheered accordingly. Hopefully we can get that second half, what they brought with energy the rest of the season.”
As for the kicked ball, even Weatherspoon was stunned by the occurrence.
“Even if it hits the ground, you still have to take that chance — it was a great play by Worrilow,” Weatherspoon said. “I am not sure what happened to the ball before he kicked it. It was awesome. I thank Worrilow for the nice kick.”
■ Eddie Lacy performed most of his heavy lifting in the first half but gritted through an ankle injury in the second to help seal the win.
The rookie back, who finished with 20 carries for 65 yards and a touchdown, had to pull himself out during the Packers’ second-to-last offensive series when the ankle tightened up, but he returned for three runs on the final possession.
“Right now it hurts, but it will be all right,” Lacy said.
Center Evan Dietrich-Smith also fought through a sprained ankle to keep the starting offensive line intact while inside linebackers Brad Jones (ankle) and Jamari Lattimore (knee) left and didn’t return.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (collarbone), defensive linemen C.J. Wilson (ankle) and Jerel Worthy, offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse (illness), receiver Chris Harper, running back Kahlil Bell and linebacker Nate Palmer were the Packers’ inactives.
■ Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk was enraged during a fourth-quarter scuffle with Atlanta center Joe Hawley, whom he felt was diving at feet on a cut block.
“I lost it for a sec,” Hawk said. “We talked it through after the game a little bit. The play was just kind of over, the guy was on the ground, I was running and I felt like he dove at the back of my leg, which is just super dangerous.”
■ The 9-degree temperature at game time and minus-1 wind chill were a wake-up call for some Packers.
“Never played in weather that cold,” Richardson said. “I never played in a game that cold. I was so pumped that it didn’t even really bother me actually. Honestly, I sweat so much I usually cramp during a game, so the cold was probably a good thing.”
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