GREEN BAY – First-year backup offensive lineman Cole Madison popped up on the injury report Thursday with a knee issue, limiting his participation. On Friday he was the only member of the team to not practice in advance of the team’s trip west to San Francisco.
Afterward, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur called the injury “pretty significant” and said Madison likely will need surgery. NFL Network reported Madison suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The Packers placed Madison on season-eninjured reserve Saturday.
“It’s an unfortunate deal,” LaFleur said. “My heart breaks for him, man, because he comes to work every day. He works hard and he’s getting better, and it’s just one of those bad injuries.”
Through the first 10 games, Madison had been a healthy scratch. Drafted in the fifth round out of Washington State in 2018, Madison took leave from the team after the rookie minicamp that spring. He said the break was much needed to help work on his mental health.
“That decision to really go out and seek help, especially for men our age, going out and starting that process is real tough,” Madison said when he returned to the team this season. “Real tough. If I had to make it again, I’d do it again. Because it was the greatest decision I think I ever made.”
Meanwhile, the Packers listed fullback Danny Vitale (knee) and tight end Robert Tonyan (hip) as questionable for their game against the 49ers. San Francisco ruled out pass rusher Dee Ford and tackle Joe Staley. Running back Matt Breida and kicker Robbie Gould are doubtful, while tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders are questionable.
Jones nearly automatic in the ‘goal zone’
The football dictionary at 1265 Lombardi Ave. has been growing since LaFleur took over as head coach in January, from adding slang to synonyms for long-held terms. For instance, there is no red zone for the Packers.
“We call it the ‘goal zone,’” left guard Elgton Jenkins said.
Another change in that area for the Packers in 2019 has been using Aaron Jones on the ground. All of his 11 rushing touchdowns have come in the red zone. In fact, nine have come from inside the 10-yard line.
“His ability to smell the end zone is unbelievable,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “I mean, it shows up.”
Heading into 2019, Jones had 12 rushing touchdowns in his previous two seasons combined. Of his nine career rushing touchdowns in the red zone, seven came from inside the 10.
Why has he been so effective in that area this season?
Jones smiled and kind of shrugged.
He noted that having Aaron Rodgers and proven red-zone receiving options such as Davante Adams and Jimmy Graham help, also — a defense wouldn’t want to leave those players in single coverage.
“I would honestly say it’s the play calling. Great play calling,” Jones said. “The big guys up front and the blocking. They know I’m going to run the ball and they’re firing off the ball.”
The play calls could be hitting a defense in exactly the right areas, but part of that is a commitment to the run in such tight quarters. The Packers have rushed 38 times and thrown it 55 in the goal zone — and that number is skewed because of the loss against Philadelphia. In that game, the Packers threw it 16 times inside the 20 against just four rushes.
In the other nine games, the split is 40 passes and 34 rushes.
The Packers average 3.4 yards per rush attempt and 3.8 yards per pass attempt in the “goal” area and they have 13 rushing touchdowns and 11 passing. It adds up to the Packers are the second-best team in the NFL in red-zone scoring at 68.6%. Tennessee is first at 72%.
“Honestly, just execution,” center Corey Linsley said. “There are a ton of things that have to go right. We’ve had (opportunities) in the red zone where we haven’t scored where things maybe haven’t gone right and we could’ve done better, but I think every time we get some of those or every time we get in the red zone we’ve done well with explosive plays and we’ve done well getting there. I don’t know if there’s a heightened level of focus or whatever you want to call it, but just speaking of those backs I think both of our backs do an excellent job when we get down there. They’re just hungry to get into the end zone.”
But as an individual, Jones has been the most effective offensive player for the Packers in that area. He has 22 of those 38 goal-zone carries — meaning he has found the end zone 50% of the time.
“It means the team trusts me and gives me a lot of confidence to put me in a situation like that and trust me with the ball in my hands to go get the touchdown or what may be a first down, whatever it may be,” Jones said of his workload.
49ers an eye test
This is the second time in two years Packers defenders will see Kyle Shanahan’s offense, as the Packers squeaked out a 33-30 victory over the 49ers at the buzzer last year at Lambeau Field. The 49ers tested the Packers’ defensive discipline with a variety of pre- and post-snap movements in order to create spacing.
And they’re seeing more of the same as they prepare for Sunday’s game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
“That’s the illusion of complexity that we always talk about,” LaFleur said. “Kyle does a great job of dressing up formations to hide concepts and really, there’s so many reasons why you motion. Obviously, like I just talked about, to hide certain things, but also to create communication among the defense, amongst the defenders out there because if there’s a breakdown in the communication, there’s going to be a breakdown in the coverage or the run fits and that’s how you get the big plays. So, that’s something we’re ready for, in terms of we know it’s coming. And our guys are going to have to trust their eyes and trust their keys.”
Unlike in 2018, however, this version of the Packers' defense isn’t only relying on tape to train their eyes — they see a very similar version of the 49ers offense every day with LaFleur’s scheme in practice.
“I think the offseason helped us as far as the one thing about this system is, it’s a lot of condensed formations, bunched formations, a lot of receivers inside the numbers, a lot of shifts and motions, which was helpful for us to see and get used to it,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “But still, this is a different play caller, they game plan differently, different types of players that they use. Kyle does a very good job of playing to the particular players’ strengths, so while that helps a little bit, that’s about it. A little bit.”