With Davante Adams ruled out, Packers tight end Jimmy Graham can expect heavy workload
GREEN BAY – When Davante Adams went down with a toe injury late last Thursday night, Aaron Rodgers turned to the most decorated of all his pass catchers to try to tie the game in five-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham. The pair did not connect on three attempts from the Eagles’ 1-yard line, including a fourth-down play that Graham could not corral with one hand.
On the next Packers' series Graham caught one ball for 12 yards and drew a pass interference on a third down to keep the drive moving. It ultimately ended, however, with a Rodgers interception near the goal line.
For the night, Graham posted season highs in targets (nine), catches (six), yards (51) and he caught his second touchdown of the season on an off-schedule adjust to a Rodgers scramble late in the third quarter.
After being shut out in the catch column for two straight weeks, leading head coach Matt LaFleur to say he had to do a better job of putting Graham in better positions, the tight end had his most catches since Week 12 of last year and most yards since Week 6.
“Yeah, I think every week, you like to get all these guys the ball as much as possible,” LaFleur said. “But again, it goes back to being mindful in terms of, all right what routes are we putting this guy on? What are we trying to accomplish? What coverages are we attacking? Are we getting them called at the right time? So there’s a lot that goes into it.”
Rodgers said Graham, who declined to speak to the media this week, has been practicing well and against the Eagles that showed up to a degree. Graham saw triple coverage at least once and double coverage several times but was able to find openings off slants, curls and hitches.
The Eagles paid him considerable attention off free releases into deeper patterns, but clearly LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett were able to find ways to get him into Rodgers’ sight lines.
“With him, in that role now with Davante out, he just wants to help the team, he just wants to help the offense,” Packers tight ends coach Justin Outten said. “And getting him rolling for the first time this year was exciting to see. We’ve had plans in the past couple weeks to get him some opportunities, but defenses have different plans for us. Going through those situations and getting in and doing some things with different personnel, he’s been very professional about it. Going into this week, he knows right now we’re going to clean the slate and work and get better. He’s been very, very good with it.”
With Adams missing the entire week of practice and Graham seemingly over the groin and quadriceps injuries that hampered him against Minnesota and Denver, one would think the tight end is set up for another heavy workload against the Cowboys.
“I think you have to get him going,” Rodgers said. “We have to get him some balls early and get him in the feel and the flow of the offense. That’s what we try to do with Davante last week as well. Get those guys going early so they have that kind of game feel, the end of the game they’re touching the ball, they’re making plays, they feel like they’re in the rhythm of the offense. I think for veteran players, it’s just a little bit more important maybe than for younger players.”
Adams officially ruled out
For the third straight practice Friday, Adams stood on the sidelines of the Don Hutson Center in sweats, and the Packers chose to rule the two-time Pro Bowler out for Sunday’s game in Dallas. The Packers elected not to wait until the inactive list Sunday to do so.
Adams suffered a toe injury on his right foot at the end of the game against Philadelphia on Sept. 26. The last time the wide receiver missed a game was the 2018 season finale with a knee issue. Since being taken in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft, Adams has missed just six games.
Through four games this year Adams leads the team in targets (36), catches (25) and yards (378). He does not have a touchdown yet, however, which is the first time since 2015 that he has gone four straight games without finding the end zone.
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, who is reticent to speak on injuries, has allowed only that Adams will be considered day-to-day as he recovers from the injury and that the Packers' medical staff has final say on whether a player is cleared to play.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who did not finish the game against the Eagles, did practice for a third straight day and is questionable.
Also missing practice for the Packers were cornerbacks Kevin King (groin) and Tony Brown (hamstring), along with running back Jamaal Williams (concussion). Williams is progressing through the protocol however, as he has been able to wear a jersey and stretch along the sidelines of practice.
Brown and Williams were ruled out for Sunday, but King was upgraded Saturday from doubtful to questionable. Joining Bulaga as questionable were defensive lineman Montravius Adams (shoulder) and linebackers Oren Burks (pectoral) and Kyler Fackrell (shoulder).
Corner depth to be tested
The Packers prioritize coverage in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme, and they opened the year with three cornerbacks that, when healthy, can defend nearly anyone in Jaire Alexander, King and Tramon Williams. Coming out of camp, the team felt good about its initial depth, too, with Brown as the next man up.
The room was further bolstered by the addition of sixth-round pick Ka’dar Hollman and the pickup of second-year player Chandon Sullivan. The team also has 2018 third-round pick Josh Jackson and Will Redmond, who came into the league as a corner but has moved to safety.
King (groin) and Brown (hamstring) were injured against Philadelphia. Jackson (10 snaps) and Sullivan (5 snaps) saw some time against the Eagles in relief and it’s likely they’ll get called upon Sunday in Dallas.
“Since I’ve got here I’ve been pretty much preparing to play corner, safety or nickel because you never know in this business,” Sullivan said. “The season is so long and the injuries are bound to happen. I don’t really know what my role is going to be this week but I’ve been practicing at all three of those positions so we’ll see what happens.”
There is also a chance that Hollman could be active for the first time all season.
“I’m ready for it, I’m excited and ready to get my first game under my belt,” Hollman said. “During camp, I was doing what I’m doing now, just filling in. That whole experience really helped out. So I’m going into this game and that’s just added information and experience.”
Having Alexander and Williams to lean on no doubt provides some comfort for Pettine, but the defensive coordinator feels the back end of that room has gotten enough to work through camp and practice to be ready to go if called upon.
“They are, and they’ve gotten a lot of quality reps,” Pettine said. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve talked about in here before, just the value of cross-training guys and getting those repetitions. You have a guy like Tramon that doesn’t need a lot of reps that we were able to rest him at times and get those young guys in there just for this occasion. Both those guys whether it’s Ka’dar or Sully, Sully has played quality minutes in this league before, and Ka’dar has shown when he’s been in there in the preseason it hasn’t been too big. We’ll see how much they end up getting out there, but we’re all confident that they’ll step up.”
Kick coverage problems
To date, the Packers have not allowed a kick return for a touchdown, but they have given teams a chance to return, ranking 11th in the league in touchback percentage at 78.95%. And after a flawless first two weeks where Chicago and Minnesota never got a chance at a return, Denver peeled off a 60-yard return the one chance it got and Philadelphia had a 67-yard return last week.
“We tell the guys; I mean, if something bad happens you get three or four weeks they’re going to continue to attack you and you gotta get it fixed because teams are going to continue to try and expose what you put out there on film,” special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said. “Obviously I’ve got to do a better job of getting guys in positions and we’ve got to do a better job of seeing the returns and getting off blocks and going to make tackles and stuff. Teams are going to continue to test you until you can show you can get it fixed.”
One Mason Crosby kickoff went out of bounds against the Eagles and Miles Sanders returned a second kick 10 yards.
“I feel like overall we’ve played pretty solid on special teams,” Crosby said. “JK (Scott)’s been punting the ball well, punt coverage has been great. Prior to the last couple games we hit all touchbacks and we haven’t even had a chance against us. We’ve only had two return opportunities on our kickoff and we need to be better. I need to kick the ball better and we need to go down there and make a tackle and not give them good field position. It all starts with me. I’ve got to make sure that on that side of things I’m doing my best every time. I know it’s a long season and we’ll definitely improve there, especially as guys get healthy we get more continuity in all those positions.”