GREEN BAY – David Bakhtiari practiced Friday.
All of Wisconsin exhaled.
The Green Bay Packers franchise left tackle returned to the field a day after missing the Packers’ padded practice with a back injury. Coach Matt LaFleur did not say whether Bakhtiari participated in team drills, but he was seen doing individual drills early in practice.
Bakhtiari’s return was promising with Sunday’s home opener against the Minnesota Vikings looming.
“He did a little bit of work,” LaFleur said. “We’ve still got about 48 hours before kickoff, so we’ll see where he’s at. We’ve just got to make sure he’s ready to go and can protect himself and play high-quality football. If he can’t, then he won’t play.”
The biggest hurdle Bakhtiari needs to clear before kickoff is ensuring his back doesn’t lock up again. Bakhtiari said his back tightened early this week in practice and was “not cooperating” Thursday, forcing him to miss practice. He was listed as “questionable” on Friday’s injury report. After practice, he sounded optimistic about his availability.
“Do whatever I need to do that’s necessary to open up my back,” Bakhtiari said, “keep it from regressing to where it was. If we do that, I think I can have a good chance to play.”
The Packers listed two players out for Sunday: inside linebacker Oren Burks (pectoral) and receiver Darrius Shepherd (hamstring). Burks was the only player to not participate in Friday’s practice. Shepherd returned for the first time since injuring his hamstring, which forced him to miss last week’s practices.
Cornerback Ka’dar Hollman (neck) was also listed as questionable. Hollman was wearing his red, non-contact jersey Friday, but he was able to practice in limited fashion.
Bakhtiari, by far, is the key player on the Packers’ injury report. The Packers need their All-Pro left tackle against the Vikings, who have a pair of quality edge rushers in Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter.
Griffen and Bakhtiari have had some battles over the years, playing twice each season. A three-time Pro Bowler, Griffen had some fun with Bakhtiari earlier this week.
“He holds pretty good,” Griffen told reporters in Minnesota, laughing. “He still holds. He finds a way. He’s a good holder, but he gets it done. But he’s a good player, too. David Bakhtiari, I rank him on the top. Each and every year, we have a battle. He is one of the top. He’s my top-three tackles in the game, for sure.”
For Bakhtiari, the feeling is mutual.
“We've built an interesting relationship over the past years,” Bakhtiari said. “I've got an immense amount of respect for him. I'm excited for the time he eventually gets out of our division, if that'll ever happen. It's always fun going against him because the one thing with our relationship, we both know that we both bring it, four quarters, 60 minutes, and it's just a heavyweight battle. It's fun.
“There are times we always lock eyes at certain points. We get in the game, give each other a little head nod. It's like, 'OK.' When boxers get in the ring, it's mano-a-mano. Let's go. Let's have some fun.”
Play-sheet wristband for Rodgers
For an opener on the road, the Packers’ pre-snap operation last week could have been much worse.
But time is precious in this offense, especially before the snap. And the Packers were far from perfect with their pre-snap operation against the Chicago Bears. There were three snaps left guard Lane Taylor could recall when the play clock became an issue, including a delay-of-game penalty in the fourth quarter.
So the Packers are trying something this week in practice they hope could save a couple of seconds. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers wore a play-sheet wristband Friday inside the Don Hutson Center, something he hasn’t done in the past.
LaFleur said he has used wristbands before, and he wanted to “experiment” with it this week to help expedite communication when signaling a play over the headset.
“It definitely gets out of my mouth a lot faster,” LaFleur said. “I’ll tell you that much. Maybe it helps me get him the play a little bit quicker.”
The idea is that instead of saying the entire play call, LaFleur can just give Rodgers a number. The quarterback can then look up the play on his wrist and relay it in the huddle.
The terminology of play calls in LaFleur’s offense is more verbose than that of former coach Mike McCarthy’s offense, Taylor said. So saying the full play call once instead of twice should save time, though LaFleur did not say whether Rodgers will use the wristband Sunday against the Vikings.
“If anything,” Taylor said, “it’d probably be quicker. The only difference is just reading it off of there instead of hearing it. There’s no trying to hear the whole call, waiting until the whole call is over with. Nothing is lost in translation, really. Because it’s right there. Just read it off, ready to go.”
Punter JK Scott rested, ready
JK Scott didn’t just have a high-quality opener to the 2019 NFL season. It was high quantity as well.
Scott, the Packers' second-year punter, led the NFL with nine punts against the Chicago Bears. He averaged 47.6 yards per punt (eighth-best in NFL), with a 43.6-yard net (seventh), and his five punts inside the 20-yard line were tied for the most.
The highlight came on Scott’s 63-yard punt that flipped field position, pinning the Bears at their 14-yard line down a touchdown with 93 seconds left.
“Really, we were just coaching everybody else up,” special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said of his instructions before the crucial play. “We always talk leading into the punt, which direction we think is going to be best and stuff. But really, I let him do his thing after that.”
Scott’s nine punts were the most he’d ever had in a game since being drafted in the fifth round last year, surpassing his previous high of seven. Punting four seasons at national powerhouse Alabama, Scott rarely was needed for a heavy workload in a game. (He punted nine times just twice in college, including 10 punts in the 2016 national championship game against Clemson.)
Despite a relatively strenuous week – the last Packers punter to punt nine times in a game was Tim Mastay in 2015 – special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said he isn’t worried whether there will be a hangover this week. “That should never be a factor,” Mennenga said.
Scott believes he’ll be fresh Sunday.
“I would say there’s a little bit difference,” Scott said, “but the thing is on the sideline, I’m taking my practice swings. You play a game three hours or so long, and the hardest part is staying warm. So throughout a game, say I punted one time in the fourth quarter. First, second, third quarter, I’m taking practice swings into the net before I get out there.
“It’s probably about the same as a normal game. Maybe a little bit more, just because you get a few extra reps. The recovery process is the same.”
Packers' secondary wary of Diggs, Thielen
The last time the Packers hosted the Vikings at Lambeau Field in Week 2 of the regular season, Kirk Cousins hit Stefon Diggs on a deep 75-yard touchdown pass and then Adam Thielen for a 22-yard score to send the 2018 game into overtime, which eventually led to a 29-29 tie. Later in the year at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Diggs had a 30-yard touchdown and Thielen a 14-yard score.
This is what is in the back of the mind of Packers defensive backs as the Vikings come to Lambeau Field on Sunday. Because while Cousins attempted only 10 passes last week in a victory over Atlanta, his top receivers made an impact. Diggs hauled in a 31-yard pass and Thielen had a 23-yard touchdown.
“You gotta look at the flow of the game, why they threw 10 passes,” Packers corner Kevin King said. “The run game was working very well for them. They got on top early, they got a big lead early, it was 14-0 right off the bat so they didn’t have to pass. It’s all things like that. They’ve got two top receivers and they’ve got a quarterback that can get it to ‘em. So you can never sleep on those guys in a sense like that. You gotta go back and watch some games where they throw a little bit or see what they’ve done against us in years prior and things like that.”
The Packers have to look back at their history against Diggs and Thielen as individuals, because the Vikings do have a new play-caller in Kevin Stefanski and a new assistant head coach/offensive advisor in Gary Kubiak. And 10 passes don’t provide a ton of film to drill into this week.
“When it comes down to it you just have to know the people,” Packers corner Tramon Williams said. “And we know they’re two great receivers, two top-tier receivers in this league. We understand it’s going to be a challenge first and foremost but at the same time we know we have to be able to get the job done out there with those guys."