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Packers stress good balance, proper cleats on slippery surface at Lambeau Field

Tom Silverstein
Packers News

GREEN BAY - After watching Washington kick returner Cam Sims bite the dust while trying to make a cut, safety Jimmy Moreland fall on his face trying to cover a post-corner route and safety Landon Collins lose his footing while trying to tackle Green Bay tight end Jimmy Graham — who then slipped and fell without being touched — cornerback Quinton Dunbar declared the Lambeau Field turf to be the worst he’d played on “besides Buffalo.”

Dunbar, cornerback Fabian Moreau, running back Darrius Guice and end Ryan Kerrigan were among the Washington players who suffered lower-leg injuries in a 20-15 loss to the Packers on Dec. 8.

It’s a stretch to say any of those injuries were related to a slick turf — Dunbar had been dealing with a hamstring injury, Guice got hit on the knee and Kerrigan strained his calf on a straight-on rush — but Dunbar’s comments were a talking point for fans who have seen a lot of slipping on Lambeau Field this season.

Heading into a divisional playoff game Sunday against Seattle with a snowstorm looming Saturday, a big focus for both teams will be assessing the pregame field conditions.

“That’s something that we always talk about,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “And I think it’s absolutely critical that those guys get a pretty good feel. They’ve got to go out early and test their footing and make sure they feel comfortable with it.

“Sometimes you do have to adjust your game, how you run routes and you know, how you just maneuver on the field.”

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) against the Philadelphia Eagles during their football game Thursday, September 26, 2019, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. The Eagles defeated the Packers 34 to 27.

After 11 seasons with a GrassMaster hybrid playing surface, the Packers switched in 2018 to SISGrass, a hybrid surface used in soccer stadiums across Europe, Asia and Africa. They became the first U.S. stadium to install the surface, which consists of a sand and pebble base, Kentucky bluegrass and synthetic fibers sown into the ground to stabilize the footing.

Heating pipes run approximately 10 inches underneath the surface and keep the field warm, so it doesn’t feel like the average front yard during a normal Wisconsin winter.

The slipping that has occurred this season, according to fields manager Allen Johnson (who chose to answer questions from the Journal Sentinel via email), is due to an excessive amount of precipitation this past fall. Though the field is covered with a tarp when it rains or snows, high humidity and dew points have resulted in the field retaining moisture.

Before the Washington game, temperatures were in the mid-30s and the humidity level at kickoff was 75%.

"From game to game, the particularly challenging conditions include wet, damp weather — rain or snow — with high humidity and low wind speeds,” wrote Johnson, who has been with the team for 22 seasons. “Any time we have that weather, we have to tarp the field.

“With Lambeau Field sitting low inside a bowl, the amount of wind and sun is limited, which in turn restricts the natural drying process of the surface.”

Johnson said night games can cause a slick field because dew forms on the grass when the temperature starts dropping and the soil is still warm. The tarp will be on the field this weekend to prevent it from getting covered with snow, and the game temperature is expected to be in the low 20s.

Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy said in an email that he “had full confidence in the playing surface on Lambeau Field” and that in 2018 when weather conditions weren’t abnormally wet, the turf held up nicely.

“I expect the field to be in good shape on Sunday, especially for this time of year,” he added.

If you’re a Packers player, you must be ready for anything.

Two things are necessary for survival when the field is less than optimum: good balance and the proper cleats. If you don’t have the first, you better have the second.

“I think you just have to know the surface,” said kick returner Tyler Ervin, who was playing in Jacksonville before joining the Packers for the Washington game. “I try to play with pretty good balance. I think out of everything, that’s what helps me out the most.

“Any time you’re slipping, you’re stepping out of your frame. I just try to keep the cuts nice and tight and that normally helps me out.”

Said cornerback Jaire Alexander: “You got good balance, you keep your feet under you, that’s all that matters.”

There are two kinds of cleats made for playing on grass: molded and detachable (or “dee-tach,” as players like to call them).

The molded shoe features cleats that are permanently attached to the bottom and generally have nine studs on them. The studs are shorter and allow skill players to make quick cuts since the cleats aren’t digging into the ground as much.

“I’m pretty consistent,” running back Aaron Jones said. “I like the molded cleat. I feel like it feels a little bit better on my feet. They want you to wear the detach out there (at Lambeau). The spikes are a little bit longer, so they stick in the ground a little bit thicker.

“It’s whatever the athlete is comfortable with.”

Receiver Davante Adams says he wears molded unless it snows.

“I think whatever footwear works best for you, you obviously do that,” he said. “Whatever you practice in, that’s obviously what you’ve got to go with.”

The detachable cleats (usually seven studs) can accept three or four different length studs. The equipment staff has electric stud drivers that can change studs in the middle of the game if field conditions change.

Offensive linemen wear the longest cleats. They need to anchor their feet in the ground, so they can’t be driven backward. Pass rushers need to find a happy medium between speed and stability because they’re both rushing upfield and anchoring when they play the run.

“I wear the detachable,” outside linebacker Preston Smith said. “Mine are moderately long. They’re made for all situations. Whether it’s a regular day or a rainy day, my cleats are long enough.”

Lambeau Field can be tricky because it might look like it’s in great condition, but the dew on the grass can make it seem like a skating rink. Before every game, the equipment staff will recommend which shoes to wear, but generally it’s up to the players to figure it out.

Many will make the decision when they come out for early warm-ups.

“It’s definitely slippery,” rookie safety Darnell Savage said. “It’s a process. It’s a challenge. In reality, you can slip on any surface. You just have to be conscious where your feet are, which is challenging. A lot goes into that.”

Savage said he likes the molded cleats better because the detachables hurt the bottom of his feet. He said that during the Dec. 15 game against Chicago, the field got hard in certain places and he started slipping.

When that happens, it’s not unusual for players to change cleats.

“The Redskins game I came out with molded and switched to detach,” Jones said. “Once the field starts getting picked up and is slippery, your cleats aren’t getting nothing.”

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers made mention of the middle of the field being very hard in the Chicago game, and several players said they thought it was soft in some areas and hard in others.

The temperature dropped from a high of 27 the previous day to a game-time temperature of 11 degrees, which created a problem.

“There were some areas, specifically with painted logos, that firmed up more quickly than anticipated due to overnight temperatures that were slightly colder than forecasted,” Johnson wrote in the email. “We’ve made some adjustments with the process to ensure that won’t be a concern moving forward.”

Until the tarp is lifted, no one knows for sure how the track will be Sunday. The one thing that is certain is that it won’t be anything the Packers haven’t seen before.