GREEN BAY - Through three games, Green Bay Packers tight ends have just eight catches for 95 yards and a touchdown, and the prospect of that improving appears to have taken a hit with another injury to veteran Jimmy Graham.
Despite not practicing, the Packers had to release an injury report Monday because they play Thursday night against Philadelphia. In it, they must estimate a player’s practice status, and Graham was listed as a non-participant with groin and thigh ailments.
The groin issue, which coach Matt LaFleur said popped up during the game against Minnesota, kept him out of practice one day last week, but the thigh injury is new. It comes in addition to a finger injury that has affected him since training camp.
The Packers elevated Evan Baylis from the practice squad last week to help back up Graham, Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan, and he may have to play more than the one snap he got in the 27-16 victory Sunday over the Denver Broncos.
Graham wound up playing 24 snaps, Lewis 31 and Tonyan 17.
One way LaFleur may be able to make up for the absence of tight end production is to use fullback Danny Vitale more in the passing game. Vitale showed his pass-catching potential with a 27-yard catch that set up a third-quarter touchdown.
Just his second as a Packer, Vitale’s 27-yard reception was the team’s longest by a fullback since John Kuhn’s 32-yard catch in Week 12 of 2012.
It should have not come as a surprise because Vitale is no stranger to catching the ball despite his position.
He had seven catches for 46 yards in 24 games with Cleveland before coming to Green Bay last season. Prior to joining the NFL, he had 135 catches for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns in 50 games at Northwestern.
The Packers had practically eliminated the fullback position in coach Mike McCarthy’s offense last year, but Vitale has played 38 snaps in three games under LaFleur and may see an increase given the Packers’ tight end situation.
His catch Sunday came on a play in which it looked like he was leading into the hole, but instead of blocking he ran right past Broncos linebacker Josey Jewell. With a little better throw, Vitale might have scored, but he got hauled down at the 1-yard line.
A play later, Aaron Jones ran it in to give the Packers a 24-10 lead.
“That was the one time I got knocked down so I didn’t see the whole play happen,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I was kind of listening for the crowd and I assumed that he had scored. I love Danny. He’s such a great teammate.”
No two teammates have gotten to the quarterback more than outside linebackers Za’Darius and Preston Smith (14 total hits).
Not Baltimore’s Matt Judon and Patrick Onwuasor (13).
Not Minnesota’s Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter (11).
Not Tampa Bay’s Shaq Barrett and Vita Vea (11).
Not Houston’s J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus (11).
And not Chicago’s Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd (five entering Monday night's game vs. Washington).
The Packers’ free agent combo has combined for 7½ sacks, six quarterback knockdowns, 24 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble.
They are a major reason the Packers rank tied for third in the NFL in sacks (13) and second in opponent’s quarterback rating (63.1)
“We’re going out there to do the best we can do,” Preston Smith said. “We’re going to play to the level and the expectation we have for ourselves and one another, and we’re going out there and be the bad-ass defense.”
The Packers came out of the Broncos game in pretty good shape.
Besides Graham's thigh, there were no new injuries that would have kept players out of practice if the Packers had worked Monday. Defensive lineman Montravius Adams (shoulder) and inside linebacker Oren Burks (pectoral) joined Graham as the only players listed as non-participants.
Cornerback Kevin King was listed as limited with a chest injury and illness, which might have been a factor in his ragged game Sunday.
The Packers listed five players with shoulder injuries and all were limited. Under LaFleur, they appear to be listing more minor injuries than they have in the past. Most of those who are limited wind up playing.
The Eagles also did not practice but listed six players as non-participants, including receiver DeSean Jackson (abdomen), cornerback Ronald Darby (hamstring) and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan (foot), all of whom are starters. Receiver Alshon Jeffery (calf) and end Derek Barnett (ankle), two more starters, were listed as limited participants.
Defense turns game on third down
When the Broncos moved into position to take the lead over the Packers in the second quarter Sunday, they had just converted a third-and-1 at the Packers’ 7-yard line. It was the fourth of five third-down conversions the Broncos had made at that juncture and it looked like the Broncos were on the verge of taking a 14-10 lead.
But on the next third down, from the Packers’ 2, Za’Darius Smith sacked Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco back to the 12. It forced a Brandon McManus field goal, which only tied the game 10-10.
It was the start of the defense turning the tide on third down with big plays, plays that eventually made the difference in the Packers' victory.
Beginning with that sack, Denver would go 4-for-10 on third down thereafter and added just one more touchdown — not coincidentally when the Broncos converted one third down and a fourth down on the drive.
Some third-down highlights included:
» Cornerback Jaire Alexander stripping Broncos tight end Noah Fant after a 4-yard completion on third-and-3 to set the Packers up for a touchdown and 24-10 lead.
» Cornerback Kevin King’s solo tackle of running back Royce Freeman in the flat on third-and-5, dropping him for a 2-yard gain. The Packers took the ensuing drive 51 yards for an important Mason Crosby field goal that made it a two-score game.
“We have a no-blink mentality because we know what type of guys we have next to us,” King said. “Shoot, they ran a little double-move and caught the ball (a 52-yard pass on third-and-6 over King to Courtland Sutton). But nobody blinked about that. Nobody blinked about that. We made a play (a Darnell Savage interception). Things like that we know they’re not in till they’re in.
“We know what we got top to bottom. Those guys get paid, they’ll make their plays, too. But we don’t blink. Next play, every play, good, bad or indifferent.”
Preston Smith got a sack on the Broncos’ first third down of the game and added a sack on fourth down late in the fourth quarter.
On the year the Packers are No. 10 in the NFL in third down defense, holding opponents to a 34.8% conversion rate.
“It’s definitely important because it’s a momentum thing,” Savage said of those types of drive-ending stops. “You’re at home. The crowd’s been great. I can only imagine. When we’re on the field and we’re talking and we can barely hear each other so I can only imagine what the offense is going through. We’re just trying to keep momentum, give momentum to our offense to allow them to go out there what they do.”
Pankey back with Packers
A roster spot opened up when left guard Lane Taylor was put on injured reserve at the end of last week and Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst made the call to re-sign offensive lineman Adam Pankey to fill it.
Pankey was one of the Packers’ cuts, but he chose to head to Tennessee’s practice squad rather than remain in Green Bay. The feeling was Pankey might get a quick call up to the Titans’ 53-man roster — but instead the opportunity opened up back where he started his career as an undrafted free agent in 2017.
“Just trying to be as professional as possible and just be up and willing for whatever and just ready to roll at all times is my thought process, and just never really wavered,” Pankey said of the last few weeks. “It was a new thing to me, moving. This is all I’d known. It was a big step for me to kind of get out of my comfort zone a little bit. But it all worked out for the best.”
Pankey was not active Sunday, but he said he’d be able to play Thursday against Philadelphia if called upon due to his familiarity with the offense and the playbook.
“I know the system here, it’s what I’ve known,” Pankey said. “The guys here. The camaraderie that you get. It was a no-brainer. There’s that recall. Things are still instilled in you. You can’t get rid of ‘em.”