Packers coach Matt LaFleur knows firsthand the importance of a healthy late-season roster
GREEN BAY – On Thursday, every member of the Green Bay Packers’ 53-man active roster practiced to some degree in advance of Sunday’s game against Washington.
The NFL collates every team’s injury report on a daily basis and of the 25 teams that had completed practice, coach Matt LaFleur’s group joined Baltimore and Miami as not having a single player sit out a practice with an injury.
Players who didn’t practice Wednesday returned on a limited basis, including tight end Jimmy Graham (calf/wrist), wide receiver Ryan Grant (illness) and corner Tramon Williams (rest). Running back Jamaal Williams was limited after a full day out Wednesday with a knee issue.
LaFleur acknowledged luck plays into such a unique circumstance but allowed the approach taken by the players and support staff, led by head athletic trainer Bryan “Flea” Engel and strength and conditioning coordinator Chris Gizzi, have also helped.
“I’ve got confidence we’ve got the right people working with our guys and we’ve got a mature locker room that knows their bodies and knows how to take care of themselves,” LaFleur said. “Because that’s a big part of it as well, just making sure you’re doing all the little things the right way, getting the treatments. I’ve got a lot of confidence in ‘Flea’ and the athletic training staff as well as ‘Giz’ and the strength staff.”
Beginning with an emphasis on taking stress off the player’s legs in training camp with shorter practices and scheduled off days for certain players, LaFleur also has modified his practice schedule at times to allow for more recuperation. The result is that the Packers have been healthy for most of the season, allowing nearly the entire team to consistently work with new offensive and special teams systems and new players.
“It gives more opportunities for guys to get the reps and really dig at the details of what we’re trying to get accomplished,” LaFleur said. “That’s when you see another level, whether it’s your offense, defense or special teams, is when the guys really can dig at the details and understand why we’re doing everything we’re doing.”
Through Thursday, Davante Adams (12) and Oren Burks (11) had missed the most practices due to injury. After that, tight ends Graham and Robert Tonyan had missed seven practices each, followed by Montravius Adams and Darnell Savage Jr. with six each.
Darrius Shepherd (five), Tony Brown (five), Geronimo Allison (three), Jamaal Williams (three), Kevin King (three), Jace Sternberger (two) and Adrian Amos (two) are the only other players to miss multiple practices through 13 games.
Offensive linemen Lane Taylor (biceps) and Cole Madison (knee) were injured in practice and put on injured reserve shortly thereafter.
“Knock on wood, but I’ve been fortunate, on the teams we’ve had success with typically it’s been a similar story,” LaFleur said of having a healthy, late-season roster. “I know in Atlanta we were pretty healthy throughout the entire season in 2016. In L.A. we had the same luck in terms of not dealing with a ton of injuries in 2017. I’ve seen it happen before.”
Getting Aaron Jones involved
It didn’t result in much yardage, but the Packers finally found a way to throw Aaron Jones the football last week.
After his seven-catch, 159-yard, two-touchdown explosion at the Kansas City Chiefs in late October, Jones had only one catch on four targets over the next three games. He had four catches on six targets at the New York Giants last week.
Although those four catches gained only 13 yards, LaFleur considered it progress.
“It was definitely part of the thought process going into it,” LaFleur said. “I think we always have to be mindful of that in every game, that he is a dynamic playmaker. I know he didn’t have the yardage he typically has. I don’t think it has anything to do with him. Anytime you've got a guy that is that explosive, you've got to find ways to get him the football, whether it's in the run or the pass.”
There could be myriad factors that limited Jones’ yardage, the Giants’ defense being just one. Jones said the icy field turf was slick, difficult for a slashing runner like Jones. He also spent several minutes in the blue medical tent on the sideline early in the game. Jones said he had “sharp” ankle pain but, though his ankle remained stiff during the game, the pain was mostly gone by the end.
“I actually didn’t feel anything after the game. I don’t know, it was weird. I don’t know if it was just from cutting, I have no clue. The next day, nothing. No pain.”
Jones said he got an MRI this week to confirm there was no ankle damage. Now that he has been cleared — Jones hasn’t even appeared on the injury report — the Packers will continue trying to get him the football, especially in the passing game.
“I think it’s more game plan,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said regarding Jones’ increase in targets last week. “We had some plays for him, for sure, where he was maybe the second look.”
Punt return output frustrating
First-year special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said he’s not losing sleep over the minus-8 total punt return yardage his group has produced over 12 games, but he’s assuredly not happy that the stat means his team is last in the NFL in that category.
“I don’t want to have that hanging on my head,” he said Thursday. “Honestly, we’re trying to lead the league in everything. Yeah, it does bother me. We’ve really put an emphasis on it. But I do see guys getting better. It may not seem like it but, behind the scenes, I see their techniques getting better. Now, it just comes down to those opportunities. We had the one opportunity and, again, the gunners were singled but they did a good job blocking, and then it just became a matter of … we had guys in good position but it’s just seeing the crease and those kind of things.
“Again, I keep saying this every week and hopefully we get a couple good returns and get on the plus side. You hit a 25-, 30-yard return, all of a sudden, 10 opportunities, you’re talking three or four yards per return, which isn’t good enough but suddenly you’re not last in the league and you move up. That’s something that we don’t want to have hanging over us. The guys understand that. But it’s not a deal where I’m going to lose a bunch of sleep over it at night and stuff. I see what we’re doing. I see that we’re doing better. It’s just a matter of time. We’ll get it fixed.”
The team claimed return specialist Tyler Ervin off waivers from Jacksonville this week and he will be back on punts and kicks against Washington.
“A veteran guy that’s been back there so he’s got some experience back there,” Mennenga said. “He’s got a good, calm demeanor. I like what he does as far as making guys miss and things like that and good quickness and acceleration.”