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Packers running back AJ Dillon resumes practicing after lengthy stint on COVID-19 list

GREEN BAY - After spending more than five weeks on reserve/COVID-19, Green Bay Packers rookie running back AJ Dillon returned to practice Thursday and has been removed from the list.

Dillon was placed on the reserve list Nov. 2, which was the Monday after the Packers’ Week 8 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Thursday marked Dillon’s first official practice since the team’s preparation for the Vikings.

“Happy to be back out there,” Dillon wrote on Twitter after practice. “Remember Covid hits everyone differently! I’ll be the posterboy for it’s no joke! I appreciate all the support throughout the process.”

Each case of COVID-19 league-wide is handled differently depending on whether a player is symptomatic. According to the protocol shared by the NFL Network, if Dillon was symptomatic, he needed to pass four thresholds to return:

* At least 10 days needed to pass since first COVID symptoms appeared.

* At least 72 hours needed to pass since symptoms last occurred.

* Return approved by the Packers’ physician in consultation with the NFL’s Incident Command System and NFL Chief Medical Officer Allen Sills.

* Local regulations and requirements were satisfied.

Now that Dillon is off of reserve/COVID-19, he is able to play whenever the Packers see fit. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is optimistic Dillon can be a contributor behind running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.

Packers running back A.J. Dillon is tackled by Vikings cornerback Harrison Hand during their Nov. 1 game.

“He's worked really hard from a standpoint of studying, being involved as much as he can,” Hackett said. “But this (COVID-19) thing, it's no joke and I think that for him, it's about working him back in and being smart and doing it the right way and allowing him to get back into the fold as soon as he's capable.”

The only precedent the Packers have when dealing with a player going on reserve/COVID-19 in-season for an extended period of time is with inside linebacker Krys Barnes. When Barnes returned to the active 53-man roster Dec. 1 after spending three and a half weeks on reserve/COVID-19, he was active that weekend against the Philadelphia Eagles and played 11 special teams snaps.

Each case will be handled differently. The Arizona Cardinals activated wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald off reserve/COVID-19 on Thursday. He told local media he lost nine pounds and has not regained his sense of smell or taste. Regardless, Fitzgerald said he feels the “best (he’s) ever felt” and is hopeful that he can play this weekend against the New York Giants in some capacity.

Injury updates

Packers center Corey Linsley, who was placed on injured reserve Dec. 5 with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left leg, said he’s “optimistic” about his timeline for return.

Linsley is expected to miss 2-6 weeks and could potentially return before the end of the regular season. Until then, Linsley said the knee is “healing up” as he works with the Packers’ training staff toward a timely return.

Meanwhile, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (concussion/knee) returned to practice Thursday and participated in a limited capacity after entering concussion protocol during last Sunday’s game against the Eagles. Tight end Jace Sternberger is still in concussion protocol and did not participate in Thursday’s practice.

Barnes (calf) was upgraded from being a limited participant Wednesday to full participant Thursday. Wide receiver Malik Taylor was added to the injury report Thursday, practicing in a limited capacity with a hamstring injury. Tight end Marcedes Lewis (knee) did not practice, which is a standard occurrence for him on Thursdays.

That sinking feeling

Special team coordinator Shawn Mennenga’s units may not have been spectacular last year, but they weren’t known for giving up a lot of big plays or committing a lot of penalties.

Since having a punt blocked in Week 7, things have been gradually going downhill on special teams, culminating with a punt return touchdown allowed and missed extra point in the team’s 30-16 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday.

It was the second punt returned for a touchdown against the Packers – the other was against Jacksonville – and the second missed extra point in two weeks. Throw in a botched onside kick, some subpar punting from JK Scott and not much of a return game and Mennenga’s units are on the spot.

“Very frustrated, No. 1, very frustrated,” Mennenga said Thursday. “It’s a deal where we tried to clean those things up and you feel like for the most part during the game, we haven’t had a lot of explosive plays (and) we’ve been pretty clean.

“Then we give up ... there’s one or two plays. It’s a 31-play series on special teams. You give up something like that and one or two plays is a disaster for a game. It can change the entire game and that’s what’s been extremely frustrating.”

Luckily for Mennenga, the two returns, the missed extra points and the onside kick did not result in a loss, but now is not the time to be trending downward.

Mennenga said Eagles returner Jalen Reagor’s 73-yard touchdown return resulted mostly from gunner Ka’Dar Hollman getting out of position, poor spacing by a couple of other defenders and two missed tackles. He said the punt could have been angled better, but the coverage units still need to make the play.

“Any punter you watch is going to hit some balls down the middle or is going to outpunt his coverage, so we’ve got to be able to cover that,” Mennenga said. “That’s first and foremost.”

As for the missed extra point, he said the snap was off a little bit and that resulted in Scott having to spin the ball, which affected the timing of the play.

“Any time the kicker is kicking laces and seeing the ball spin, the field operation needs to be cleaned up, and then obviously Mason (Crosby) knows he has to try to put that ball through regardless of where the laces are at,” Mennenga said. “The operation will help him if we get that cleaned up.”

Mennenga lost his returner, Tyler Ervin, to an ankle injury that landed him on injured reserve, but he should have recently signed receiver Tavon Austin available. He didn’t say for sure whether Austin would handle punts and kickoffs as Ervin did, but chances are he’ll at least get a shot at punts.

“We’re going to evaluate and break it all out on Sunday, but obviously just making sure he’s ready, making sure he’s up to speed on everything and is physically ready,” Mennenga said.

On the rise

The two-sack game defensive tackle Kingsley Keke had against the Eagles wasn’t a fluke, according to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

It’s the second time Keke has had a two-sack game, but this time it came as a starter in the base defense and regular in the nickel package. The second-year pro has made the kind of improvement that is making two-sack games possible.

“Keke is a guy that has done a lot of growing up and it's great to see because we knew from the jump that he showed flashes of potential,” Pettine said. “At times he flashed that NFL skill set, but it just wasn't as complete a game. And this is another guy that's committed himself and really hung on every word from (defensive line coach) Jerry Montgomery.

“He has really made that jump in year two. And he's so much more of a complete player.”

Hunting less, picking off more

Secondary coach Jerry Gray credits safety Darnell Savage’s recent interceptions to his more consistent play and not a focus on getting his hands on every ball.

Savage has three interceptions in the last two games and Gray said they have come with him playing the defense and not taking a lot of chances.

“If you’re hunting down plays, it’s hard to be right all the time,” Gray said. “I thought the last three or four weeks he’s been very consistent, doing what he’s supposed to do, understanding what we’re trying to get him to do. And then be patient enough to make plays when they come your way and not try to force the issue. I think that’s the biggest difference.”

Aging Adrian Peterson still productive

Adrian Peterson is not the physical specimen he once was. Age catches up with everyone, some more slowly than others, and Peterson is no exception. 

His last 1,000-yard season came in 2018. He had 898 yards last season. He has 501 yards in 2020, on pace for 668 for the year, his fewest ever in a 16-game season. 

At age 35, it’s apparent the Hall-of-Fame-caliber running back has lost a step. He has yet to rush for 100 yards in any of his 12 games. It would be his first full season without a 100-yard game. 

But the Packers aren’t taking Peterson lightly as they prepare to defend him for the 21st time in his career. 

“If he’s not the same Adrian Peterson,” Packers safety Adrian Amos said, “I know a lot of times you have all-time great players, when they lose one step it gets exaggerated. But them losing a step is still better than a lot of backs. So I’m not, that’s not me saying that he’s losing a step or anything. I’m just saying that he’s still a great back, he’s still a great talent."

Peterson has had some production this year, including a pair of touchdowns in each of the past two games. His six rushing touchdowns this season are one fewer than Packers running back Aaron Jones.

“He can still get in and out of cuts. He’s explosive," Amos said. "And I don’t think he’s ever going to lose that running angry mentality. So that’s somebody we’ve got to get multiple hats to the ball, we have to make sure we wrap up.”