BALTIMORE - Any other year, perhaps Matt LaFleur would’ve called a last-minute audible Thursday night.
His quarterback wasn’t playing. Aaron Rodgers’ expected preseason debut was postponed when back tightness prevented the Green Bay Packers quarterback from dressing against the Baltimore Ravens. Without him, the offense LaFleur saw likely bore little resemblance to what the Packers will look like in their opener at the Chicago Bears, to be played three weeks to the day from their 26-13 loss in Baltimore.
Regardless, LaFleur wanted to see how his preferred starters at each position played in a game setting. So other than running back, where Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams did not dress, the Packers had nine other offensive starters on the field against the Ravens. They included irreplaceable All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga and top receiver Davante Adams.
“They needed to get some reps out there,” LaFleur said. “So it’s just next man up.”
The team announced 45 minutes before kickoff Rodgers would not play, making clear it was a “precautionary” measure. LaFleur said Rodgers felt tightness Wednesday, and it was a game-time decision on whether he’d play. That he didn’t, LaFleur said afterward in echoing the team’s pregame comments, was “just precautionary.” LaFleur does not expect Rodgers’ back tightness to linger into the coming week, or force him to miss practice.
“I think he felt a lot better this evening,” LaFleur said.
If anything with the two-time MVP quarterback is less than 100 percent physically, it would be senseless to expose him to hits. Injuries have greatly affected Rodgers’ past two seasons, and at age 35 he has reached the point in his career where rest should be prioritized.
That the Packers were playing a defense as fierce as the Ravens' might have persuaded them even more to sit Rodgers. The Ravens are known for the pressure they can put on quarterbacks. With LaFleur’s offense still in its infancy, it was likely an easy call to postpone Rodgers’ preseason debut.
“We didn’t want to put him at risk,” LaFleur said, “put him out here if he’s not 100 percent.”
The Packers' starting offense got two possessions, stretching into the early second quarter. It amassed 71 yards on 16 plays (4.4-yard average) with its second drive ending in Mason Crosby’s 43-yard field goal.
Kizer was a mixed bag starting in Rodgers’ place, showing the same inconsistency that has defined his camp. He airmailed Adams on fourth-and-4, throwing high and hard when Adams got open on an in-breaker. He also missed tight end Jimmy Graham by a couple yards on a deep pass down the right seam. But Kizer was able to connect with a wide-open Geronimo Allison for 22 yards on third-and-10.
It appears Kizer has taken an early lead over Tim Boyle in the competition to be Rodgers’ backup. He completed just 5 of 10 passes for 70 yards against the Ravens, and is 13-for-23 for 172 yards and a touchdown this preseason, but Kizer’s two drives coincided with the starting offense. He’s also been clean this preseason, with no turnovers in two exhibitions, an issue that has plagued him in the past.
“It was the first time in a long time where I felt as if I was going out there with actual live bullets,” Kizer said. “In the sense of having all of our ones out there and playing against their ones, you get to see how fast the game actually is. For the most part, I felt as if I saw the game pretty well, and I was able to execute for the majority of the plays we had.”
If Kizer’s underwhelming play opened the door, Boyle certainly didn’t walk through it. Boyle got extended time Thursday night, playing two-plus quarters. He completed 12 of 21 passes for 107 yards and one touchdown, but most of that production came in the third quarter, against the Ravens’ backups.
The Packers’ lone touchdown was a 7-yard pass in the back of the end zone to receiver Darrius Shepherd, who continues to make a run at the 53-man roster. Shepherd had three catches for 11 yards, and he added a 36-yard kickoff return in the first quarter. Fellow wide receiver prospect Allen Lazard caught three passes for 63 yards, including one for 25.
On the preseason, Boyle is 15-for-26 for 147 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 112.8 rating. Kizer, playing against better competition, has a 94.84 rating.
“I didn’t execute as well as I would have liked,” Boyle said. “… I feel good. The play calls that are coming in, I understand them and spitting them back in the huddle, and so it is just a matter of executing them and seeing different defenses and trying to get us in the right situation.”
Neither quarterback was aided by a putrid run game.
Without their top two tailbacks, the Packers got almost zero traction on the ground. Starter Tra Carson ran six times for 9 yards. Darrin Hall was the Packers' most productive runner with 31 yards on seven carries (4.4-yard average), while rookie Dexter Williams had 5 yards on three carries, and Keith Ford had 10 yards on one carry.
Without a consistent run game, the Packers were unable to set up their play-action pass. It led to a plodding attack light on big plays.
“If you want to score points in this game, in this league,” LaFleur said, “it’s about explosive plays, and that’s where we’re struggling as an offense. I thought there were way too many missed ops out there.”
While the Packers' offense was missing its biggest piece, their defense was complete.
The starting defense, playing mostly vanilla scheme in base and nickel with a light mixture of dime, held the Ravens to a pair of field goals in its debut. It was a homecoming for former Raven Za’Darius Smith, who beat Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley but whiffed on a sack against ultra-athletic quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“It’s Lamar, man,” Smith said, shaking his head while he sheepishly smiled. “I was talking to Preston (Smith), and I kept getting mad at myself about it. I kept saying, ‘That’s Lamar Jackson.’ And at the same time, Preston kept saying, ‘You’re Za’Darius Smith.’ I’ve just got to do better on my tackling, and I feel like we all have to.”
For a second straight week, LaFleur was displeased with how his defense tackled. Unofficially, the starters missed four, accounting for roughly 20 yards. The Packers' backup struggled even more.
The Ravens' starting offense had 97 yards on 20 plays (4.85-yard average) with six points. It might have been held to three points, but cornerback Jaire Alexander dropped an interception on the left sideline that extended the opening series.
While the Packers' defense gave coordinator Mike Pettine plenty to evaluate, the offense remains an uncertain work in progress.
Rodgers’ absence delayed the debut of LaFleur’s offense. It will be a collaboration between quarterback and his play-calling head coach. There are plenty of wrinkles to iron out in the preseason, including audibles, how often the quarterback lines up under center and how often plays are extended off schedule.
The Packers will have two more opportunities for Rodgers to play in the preseason, though it’s unlikely he would dress for their finale Aug. 29 against the Kansas City Chiefs. That would leave next week’s trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada to play the Oakland Raiders, but the surface at IG Stadium is Field Turf, not natural grass, which could be a factor.
LaFleur left open the possibility Rodgers won’t play in the preseason.
“I think we’d like to see him,” LaFleur said, “but you’re talking about a veteran quarterback that’s played a lot of football. I don’t think it’s a necessity, but it’s certainly something we’d like to see.”