Emphasis on preserving players' bodies reflected in health of Packers' roster

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GREEN BAY - The last time the Green Bay Packers were blessed with so much fortunate health, they came five minutes from the doorstep of a Super Bowl trip.

That’s not to say this 2019 version of the Packers, a team off to a sizzling 7-1 start with a roster that has stayed mostly healthy, will advance as far as the 2014 team that eventually lost in the NFC Championship game at Seattle. Or that injuries aren’t looming in the second half of this season.

But with Matt LaFleur keeping a close watch on preserving his players’ bodies, the Packers are the healthiest they’ve been at the season’s midway point in years.

Every player on the Packers' 53-man roster practiced in pads inside the Don Hutson Center on Thursday. That included receiver Davante Adams, whose turf toe has been the team’s most significant injury to date. Adams has missed four games since spraining the ligaments in his right big toe Sept. 26, but Thursday was the first time he practiced in pads since the injury, a sign he’s on track to return Sunday when the Packers play at the Los Angeles Chargers.

Adams again was listed as limited on the injury report. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (knee), linebacker Blake Martinez (hand/shoulder) and defensive back Will Redmond (ankle/elbow) went from limited to full participation. 

Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur embraces wide receiver Allen Lazard (13) before their game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday. September 15, 2019 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

"It's been a long time coming, it feels like," LaFleur said. "We're in pretty decent health considering it is Week 9, and hopefully we can continue that."

No matter what follows in the season’s second half, it’s easy to draw a connection between the Packers’ remarkable health to date and their first-time head coach’s intensive approach to preserving the roster. Since the start of training camp, LaFleur has not worked his players hard in any three-day stretch. The most notable change in the regular season has been Wednesday walkthroughs, with players taking a half-speed approach in shorts without their helmets.

LaFleur has conducted walkthroughs the past couple weeks, in part because of his team’s influx of night games early in the season. Asked if the Wednesday walkthroughs will become a staple of his game-week schedule through the season’s second half, when the Packers are scheduled to play only one game at night, LaFleur said he would monitor it weekly and base a decision off his team’s health.

Considering how well he’s maintained his players’ health, and his belief that the midweek walkthrough is a useful tool, LaFleur might be enticed to keep the schedule in place.

“We’ve done it a couple weeks now,” LaFleur said, “and it’s been pretty good for us. To be honest with you, you end up getting more reps than you do a typical practice because you’re just going nonstop. So I think it’s been a good tool for our guys.”

LaFleur said teams he has coached for throughout his career “sporadically” used the Wednesday walkthrough. The Los Angeles Rams implemented Wednesday walkthroughs midway through the 2017 season, when LaFleur was offensive coordinator under head coach Sean McVay.

The Packers have also conducted their walkthrough later on Wednesdays than typical practices. With a 4 p.m. start time, the Packers spend the first part of their day doing classroom work, including film review. LaFleur said the team’s Victory Monday, when players are largely given the day off, makes the early part of Wednesday even more important.

“There’s just more material to kind of go through,” LaFleur said.

LaFleur acknowledged there are parts of a traditional practice that can’t be duplicated in a walkthrough, but he believes the walkthrough also has some added benefits. Beyond the additional reps, he said it’s helpful to hone the mental part of the game.

“Some of the rhythm and timing and just communication,” LaFleur said. 

“Just going out there and getting reps, especially for young players, it can be a little — I don’t want to say detrimental — but it can, you know, they could use those reps certainly. But again, I think it’s more about what’s best for our football team as a whole.”

Alex Light holds his own

The Packers have felt Alex Light possessed potential as a swing tackle since he made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Richmond a year ago, but for the most part any development he has shown in that regard has been relegated to closed practice sessions.

“Out there, it felt like practice,” Light said. “I’m in the huddle, hear the call, get to the line, evaluate and just do my job. Playing at Arrowhead, (it’s) loud but it really didn’t faze me at all.”

Fortunately for the Packers, that translated to game play in Kansas City when he filled in for three plays at left tackle and then for 13 at right tackle — including the game-clinching drive in the final five minutes of the game.

“I always stay focused on everything, know both sides just like they do, watch film like I’m going to play a lot and in the game just stay ready,” Light, 23, said. “The hardest part is just staying warm on the sideline, honestly. Just stand by the heaters and then just watch the game, staying focused just in case what happened last week happens.”

The 6-5, 309-pound tackle said he was able to knock some rust off after training camp when he played 51 snaps against Philadelphia on Sept. 26, but the experience in Kansas City was different due to the crowd noise and with the Packers starting the final drive on their own 2-yard line.

“He showed just great maturity and being a pro and being ready to play,” LaFleur said. “I was really impressed with that. He played, I think he played (16) snaps and they were meaningful snaps. You’re talking about the 4-minute situation where we had an 11-play drive, and I think the other one he was in there was when we threw the screen out to Aaron Jones. That was impressive to be ready to go on either side.”

Tremon Smith eyes kick-return chance

Tremon Smith has played a bit of roster roulette since the Packers picked him up off waivers from Kansas City on Sept. 17, but he’s hoping his second stint on the 53-man roster gives him a chance to make explosive plays in the kick-return game.

Smith appeared in three games and returned three kickoffs (22.7 average) before the team released him Oct. 14. He went unclaimed and came back to the practice squad two days later. He was promoted back to the active 53-man roster Tuesday as the Packers reshuffled their kick return game.

The club elected to release Darrius Shepherd this week (and re-sign him to the practice squad) to boost the return game. Per NFL.com, the Packers are averaging only 20.1 yards per kick return (No. 26) and 7.9 yards per punt return (No. 22).

On Thursday, Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga acknowledged the return game hasn’t produced as expected.

“No, we haven’t. I’m as disappointed as anybody,” he said. “We work on it hard. We really put an emphasis on that and try to work on those things and work the fundamentals and work the schemes. Anytime you don’t have success you’re always trying to figure out why. As coaches we’re trying to figure out (how) we can help our guys and put them in better positions. I think as our core gets solidified and those kind of things and we just get some guys playing multiple things, get the multiple reps and get more comfortable, I think those things will come eventually. I see the progress in practice and guys are understanding what we’re doing better. It’s just hopefully a matter of time.”

The Packers’ average starting field position is their 27.1-yard line, which is No. 22 in the league. Teams have begun testing the kick-return game, kicking the ball short and allowing a return.

“I would love that. That’s absolutely what I want,” Smith said. “The other times I was back there I never got the chance. I guess they seen the stats from last year but that’s what I’m hoping and praying they do. Even though the Chargers were in Kansas City’s division, I’m pretty sure they know of or remember, but if not, they will. I’m excited to get the ball in my hands.”

As a rookie in Kansas City last year, Smith returned 33 kicks for 886 yards (26.8), but he has not returned punts in a regular-season game.

“I know he’s confident and the guys we’ve got back there are confident in what they can do and their ability, so at the end of the day I think he’s going to go back there — or whoever we put back there — is going to go back there and do great,” Mennenga said.

Burks stuck on bench

If he’s upset or frustrated that he can’t get on the field, inside linebacker Oren Burks isn’t saying.

His response to numerous questions about the fact he played zero defensive snaps against Kansas City and has played just 30 in the four games since returning from a torn pectoral muscle was that he’s just going to keep working hard.

Burks did say that getting accustomed to the speed of the game has been a process that he has been working on through heavy use on special teams, but when asked what the coaches are telling him he needs to do to get on the field, he didn’t provide an answer.

The Packers thought the athletic Burks would be able to play a significant role this season, but defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said it’s been a circumstance of match-ups that has affected Burks’ playing time.

“His time will come, that's not something we need to force,” Pettine said. “But right now it's just the style of the teams that we're playing and we're getting so much of spread groupings and not getting a ton of where it's two tight ends and a fullback and we would be more in base defense where he and B.J. (Goodson) would be more involved.”

Pettine said he’s confident Burks will be ready when he’s needed.

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