Jared Cook injury poses problems for Packers

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - Since the day tight end Jared Cook signed his contract, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and his offensive staff have been exploring all the ways they could exploit his rare size-and-speed combination.

Then, the 6-5, 254-pound Cook broke his foot and missed all of the offseason workouts.

He wasn’t available until Aug. 9, but once he debuted in training camp McCarthy started to see evidence of what Cook could add, even though he was playing the games with backup quarterbacks Brett Hundley and Joe Callahan.

And now, just about the time he and Aaron Rodgers were starting to develop some chemistry, he’s out again, this time with a high-ankle sprain.

Through three games, McCarthy often had used Cook as a fourth wide receiver, lining him up alone outside or in the slot or in a bunch formation. Rodgers’ favorite target has been receiver Jordy Nelson, but Cook had been targeted 11 times, fourth most on the team.

“It was interesting to me when they signed him,” said New York Giants coach Ben McAdoo, who was on McCarthy’s staff from 2006-14. “I really couldn’t wait to see him on tape, to see how they’d use him down the middle of the field.

“I know he’s a little bit nicked up right now, but when you have a tight end in that offense that can win down the field, it changes the whole ballgame.”

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This week, Cook has alternated being on crutches and in a boot and the odds of him playing Sunday against the Giants don’t look good. So, just as the offense seemed to be finding itself, it will have to consider either adjusting or going with the bigger, slower, better-handed Richard Rodgers in Cook’s role.

“I wouldn’t say adjust,” receiver Davante Adams said. “It’s definitely a bump not having a guy who’s been producing for you, but we have guys out there that can still make plays. We just have to pick up where he left off. Rich is completely capable of making the same plays and doing the same things.”

Confidence that the slimmed-down Rodgers can fill a role that was helping dictate defensive personnel and creating one-on-one matchups was present throughout the locker room. From Adams to Rodgers to Nelson, all were certain Rodgers could pick up where Cook left off.

Still, there’s a reason Cook had started the first two games and played 79 snaps to Rodgers’ 61 before injuring his right ankle in the Detroit game Sept. 25. McCarthy and his staff thought Cook could stretch the field, which he hadn’t yet started to do (no catches of 20 or more yards), and take advantage of some matchups against linebackers and safeties.

McCarthy has used Cook all over the field.

The veteran tight end most often has played flexed a few yards from the right tackle, where it’s easiest to just run down the middle of the field. He has lined up by himself either to the right or left a dozen times. He has lined up in the slot either in a bunch formation with two other receivers or to the inside of a single receiver about 16 times.

Despite all those efforts, Cook’s production has been modest: six catches for 53 yards.

On the one hand, he drew a big pass-interference call running down the middle against Jacksonville to help set up a late first-half touchdown and caught a 15-yard pass over the middle against Detroit on the opening touchdown drive.

On the other hand, he ran himself out of a first down on a promising series to start the second half against Minnesota.

The bottom line is that every game he played in was another step toward developing him as the Jermichael Finley-type tight end the Packers have been missing for several years. Now, there’s a pause again and McCarthy has to decide whether Rodgers and Justin Perillo can have the same effect on opposing defenses.

“The threat from that position, particularly in the middle of the field and how their secondary views that position, that’s probably the biggest indicator of how a defense is going to challenge you and how you can dictate personnel,” McCarthy said. “That’s something we’ll have to get done with Richard and Justin.”

Rodgers tried to play Cook’s role last year, but at 270 pounds, he wasn’t winning one-on-one matchups against anyone. McCarthy asked Rodgers to drop down to the 255 range and the weight loss is noticeable.

So far, Rodgers is the only tight end with a catch of 20 yards or more (22 vs. Jacksonville) and is averaging 11.2 yards per reception. He’s either going to try to fill Cook’s role or the quicker, leaner Perillo will be given the chance.

Perillo had one catch for 13 yards after Cook went out in the Lions game.

“Rich was taking a lot of reps as it was and the thing is it’s going to open up opportunities for Justin,” Aaron Rodgers said of Cook’s absence. “I’ve been a big fan of his since his first day here. He does it the right way; he works really hard.

“He’s got a great approach to the game, he’s got a great preparation schedule, obviously because he’s out there and you don’t worry about him. He just catches the ball and makes plays.”

The Packers worked out veteran tight end Rob Housler and undrafted free agent J.P. Holtz on Tuesday but did not sign either.

The 6-5½, 248-pound Housler, a third-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2011, last played for the Chicago Bears. Before that, he had played six games with the Cleveland Browns, whose tight ends coach at the time was Brian Angelichio, the Packers' current tight ends coach.

The 6-3, 240-pound Holtz played at the University of Pittsburgh and caught 81 passes for 931 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Browns signed him after the draft and released him on the cut down to 53.

Another option available to McCarthy is to just replace the tight end with another receiver. Rookie Trevor Davis showed he can be a deep threat and the return of Jeff Janis from a broken hand provides another speed option down the middle.

The downside with that is the defense will replace a linebacker with a cornerback, erasing the matchup advantage McCarthy gets when Cook is in the game. The whole idea of having someone like Cook is to create a mismatch in personnel that could bleed into a big play.

The Packers’ hope is that Cook’s injury won’t keep him out too long and they can get back to establishing him as a middle-of-the-field threat. But for now, they’ll have to make do without.

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