GREEN BAY - Ideally, Aaron Rodgers would flip the Green Bay Packers’ home-and-road schedule around.
The Packers quarterback appreciates the three straight home games his team will play, starting this week when Green Bay hosts the Minnesota Vikings. It’s nice, of course, to be playing five of the next six at Lambeau Field, a stretch that takes the Packers all the way through their Oct. 20 game against the Oakland Raiders.
It’s just that those home games are best served late in the season, when the tundra is frozen, rather than in balmy September.
“Being an elder statesman,” Rodgers said, “you’d like it to be the opposite. You’d like it to be the stretch run, five of six at home, as cold as possible, under 32 (degrees) and make some of these teams come play us.”
As it is, the Packers know these upcoming home games are critical. After starting their season with a big road victory, matching their road win total from 2018, the Packers’ early momentum can be halted if they don't take care of business at home.
“We’re going to have to get these early in the season,” Rodgers said, “to set ourselves up for some of those tough road stretches down in the back half of the season. We’ve got a great team coming in and a stretch of three games in, what, 11 days or something like that, which we’ve done in the past. Never, I don’t know, at home like this with three in a row, but it’s going to be important for us to start fast, get the home-field advantage going.”
The Packers will host the Denver Broncos next weekend, then have a short week with a Thursday night home game against the Philadelphia Eagles. They will then travel to the Dallas Cowboys before having consecutive home games against the Detroit Lions and Raiders.
“The way I see it,” coach Matt LaFleur said, “it’s one week at a time. We can’t look any further than today, and preparing to go out and do the best job that we can and get better today. I see it as one game at a time. I’m not worried about what comes down the road. It’s the Minnesota Vikings.
“We know that they’re flying high right now. They just put a thumping on a really good (Atlanta Falcons) football team. We’ve got our work cut out for us, in front of us, and we’ve got to stay focused on that task at hand.”
Practice break for veterans
Only two players were unable to practice Wednesday, but the Packers were using caution with a few veterans.
Tight end Jimmy Graham (finger) was limited in practice, as was left tackle David Bakhtiari (back). Right tackle Bryan Bulaga and cornerback Tramon Williams had scheduled rest days. And cornerback Kevin King (chest/hamstring) was limited in the team’s non-padded practice inside the Don Hutson Center.
Inside linebacker Oren Burks (pectoral) and receiver Darrius Shepherd (hamstring) were held out of practice, as they were last week. Cornerback Ka’dar Hollman (neck) was limited but in a red non-contact jersey.
No holding back for Zimmer
In a league where giving snaps to key players in the preseason is becoming increasingly taboo, like a relic from an ancient way of thinking, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has held firm to the contrarian philosophy.
Zimmer played starters on offense and defense in each of the first three preseason exhibitions, including a drive each in the opener. Overall, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins played 53 snaps, receiver Stefon Diggs played 48 snaps and tight end Kyle Rudolph played 52 snaps. The Vikings' defense had many of its best players on the field for extended snaps, including pass rushers Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter for 64 apiece, linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks for 64 apiece, and cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes for 59 apiece.
“I’m sure some of our guys could probably not play in the preseason,” Zimmer said, “and play really well. For me, it’s just something we do, and it’s how we do it. My feeling is you can’t play scared in the preseason, you have to go out and have to hit a little bit and tackle a little bit, especially if you’re not tackling in practice. So even like the runners, they need to get tackled sometimes, to me. That’s my philosophy. It doesn’t mean I’m right.”
The Packers took a very different philosophy in their first preseason under first-time head coach LaFleur. The starting offense only played two drives all preseason, both coming in Baltimore. Rodgers did not play a single snap. The plan had been for Rodgers and the rest of the Packers offense to play in the third exhibition against the Oakland Raiders, but problems with the field in Winnipeg, Manitoba caused the Packers to yank starters on offense and defense.
It’s hard to determine whether one philosophy produced better results. The Vikings throttled the Falcons in their opener, taking a 28-0 lead into the fourth quarter before winning 28-12. The Packers, meanwhile, were occasionally sloppy in their opener, but survived a brutal test with a tough road victory at Chicago. A Packers defense that played sparingly in the preseason looked dominant against the Bears.
Both teams carry 1-0 records into Sunday’s showdown at Lambeau Field.
Zimmer said preseason isn’t the only reason his team was sharp in its first game.
“We bang pretty good in training camp,” he said. “So hopefully that’s more of it than preseason.”
To do a little better on offense this weekend against the Vikings, LaFleur would like to run the ball more efficiently on first down.
His first order of business should be calling runs on first down.
In the first half against Chicago, LaFleur called passing plays or let Rodgers audible to pass plays on 10 of 13 first-down plays. On the three runs, Aaron Jones gained zero and three yards and Jamaal Williams gained five.
“Any time you’re 2-of-12 on third downs, you’re going to limit the number of times you run the football,” LaFleur said. “So, we know that’s going to be an important part of this game, is staying ahead of the chains on first and second down so we can get in those third and manageable situations.”
By the end of the game, LaFleur had run the ball 12 times for 28 yards on first down.
The run game started to show some signs of life in the second half. During a span from late in the third on, Jones had 31 yards on seven carries, including five for 19 on first-downs. The final rushing numbers were 22 carries for 47 yards (2.1 average).
“It felt like it started to get going a little bit in the second half,” LaFleur said. “We just didn’t have enough opportunities.