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Packers planning game-day elements to test young players in final camp practice

GREEN BAY - On Tuesday, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur will begin the transition to a regular-season practice format, meaning the starters and key backups will begin to prepare for the Sept. 13 season opener against the Minnesota Vikings.

Wanting to give those fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster an extended opportunity to prove themselves, LaFleur has scheduled a practice inside Lambeau Field on Sunday that will incorporate some game-day-like elements that have been missing because of a COVID-19-affected training camp.

The players, for one, will be wearing their game-day uniforms. And the practice will start at noon, same time as the Vikings game.

“Our coaches are going to be up in the press box, we’re going to have our headsets on,” LaFleur said Saturday. “We’re going to have the tablets, the NFL’s coming in here to help us just with your typical game-day procedures. We’ll have some officials – that’ll be the first time we’ve had officials here (this camp).

“So, I’m really excited to see how these guys respond to that situation.”

For the veterans, it is just a tune-up, a refresher course in game-day operations.

But for those young players trying to make the roster, it will be a practice full of unscripted play calls that will give them minimal time to process their assignment, get into the right position and communicate with those around them.

LaFleur called it a scrimmage, but he didn’t say whether there would be any segments that included live tackling. Several times this camp, LaFleur has ended practice with about 10 plays of full contact, limiting participation to non-starters and younger players.

The practice comes six days before the Packers have to trim their roster to 53, so it will be the most extensive opportunity for a bubble player to secure a roster spot. The rest of the week many of those same players will be competing on the scout team, running the Vikings' schemes so the starters can prepare for the opener.

As big an opportunity as it is, some players aren’t making too much out of it. They are trying to build off what they’ve shown the past two weeks on the practice field.

“You can’t view it that way or you will put that pressure on yourself,” receiver Reggie Begelton said of making it his personal Super Bowl. “Go out there; it’s football. At the end of the day, it’s football. You’re here to play football. Just go have fun.

“I want to wake up in the morning and be like ‘You know what? It’s a good day to play football.’ I’m going to go out there and give it my best.”

For LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst it’s a chance to see how players react when plays are being called from the sideline, adjustments are being made and officials are watching their every move.

“It’ll be nice to see these guys in more of a game-like situation to see how they respond,” LaFleur said. “Certainly, they’re still competing – and not only for roster spots, but for playing time.

“So, I think this is going to be a big part of our evaluation process to see how some of these guys that you’ve never heard of, to see how they respond.”

Packers talk coalition with Bucks, Brewers

On Thursday night, hours after canceling his team’s practice that day, LaFleur said he was on the phone with Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst, discussing how the two teams could push for necessary social justice changes. 

The call was only the beginning of what LaFleur hopes will be a coalition of Wisconsin’s three professional sports franchises to push initiatives for social justice reform. LaFleur said he hopes to also arrange calls with Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and president Peter Feigen, as well as key members of the Milwaukee Brewers. 

LaFleur’s phone call with Horst came four days after he saw video of Kenosha man Jacob Blake being shot seven times in the back from point-blank range by police officer Rusten Sheskey. The Bucks and Brewers postponed a postseason and regular-season games, respectively, on Wednesday. 

“We’d love to come together,” LaFleur said, “and partner with the professional sports teams in Wisconsin to help create some positive impact in society.” 

Meanwhile, the Packers continue to have internal dialogue addressing racial inequality and police brutality against minorities.  

Center Corey Linsley said the team had a phone call with Wisconsin Public Defender Kelli Thompson. 

“Just to get educated on all the matters we’re trying to cover,” Linsley said. “It’s made an impact on me. I know that it’s made an impact on guys in the locker room, and I hope that we can carry this impact that we’ve felt and move other people to really empathize and hear out guys, players that they see on Sunday, that they watch on Sunday, that they have a ton of respect for and believe in and cheer for and to just get people to empathize, listen to them, open their minds and hearts and really come to some sort of conclusion, come to some sort of outcome where we can have an impact on society, and have an impact of the greater good.” 

Gutekunst spoke Saturday for the first time since Thursday’s practice was canceled, replaced by a team meeting. Gutekunst, along with team president/CEO Mark Murphy and executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball, was praised by players for their receptiveness in the meeting. 

Gutekunst said he has not had any conversations with either Horst or Brewers general manager David Stearns, but stressed that the Packers as an organization have been in touch. As for his role, Gutekunst said he will continue to ensure Packers players have a platform to address social justice matters. 

“I think the very first thing is not silencing them,” Gutekunst said. “I think certainly in my lifetime, I’ve seen probably where that’s happened, and I think just having some empathy that there’s guys that will go through a lot of experiences that we may not and to try to understand that and then help create opportunities not only for education, but then how they can put things into action. I think everybody’s hurting right now, and everybody wants to do something. I think the organization can help create those opportunities.” 

Border watch

With the Canadian Football League cancelling its season and allowing players to opt out of their contracts so they can attempt to play in the NFL, Gutekunst said there will be a pool of players he and his personnel staff will want to explore.

The Packers have two former CFL players in camp – Begelton and cornerback DaShaun Amos – so, they’ve scouted the league well. There’s a good chance they’ll start bringing in players for tryouts soon.

Most of them will be veterans who could transition to the NFL fairly easily.

“I think across the league a lot of those guys will start to populate emergency boards, ready lists, things like that,” Gutekunst said. “I think you’ll probably see on the transaction wires as we move forward, a lot of those guys getting worked out and looked at. You certainly will from us, and those guys certainly could factor in.”

Testing their tempo

Among the many litmus tests the Packers will get out of the scrimmage Sunday, Linsley said it will give the offense a good chance to test its tempo. 

The Packers' offense had entered camp wanting to building an up-tempo pace into its scheme in LaFleur’s second season. Without preseason competitions, the opportunities to do so have been few. Most of the Packers’ team reps are scripted, meaning players know which plays will be run in succession. 

Regardless, Linsley said it has been a major point of emphasis. 

“We’re constantly harping on that,” Linsley said, “and we’re constantly trying to get faster and faster and play faster and think faster. I think after tomorrow, we’re going to have a great picture of exactly where we’re at, exactly what kind of steps are needed to improve and get to the point where we want to be in terms of tempo in this offense, and again the sense of urgency.” 

LaFleur has said the tempo of his offense remains a work in progress. He said the Packers were “a bit sluggish” in and out of the huddle inside the Don Hutson Center on Thursday, when the team was in full pads. 

“That will be a point of emphasis over the next couple of days,” LaFleur said.