Reinforcements required as injuries take heavy toll on Packers' depth
GREEN BAY – The recent acquisition of running back/receiver Tavon Austin and defensive tackle Anthony Rush came not a minute too soon for the Green Bay Packers, who heading into the final four games are starting to feel the hurt of a long season.
The Packers placed safety Raven Greene (shoulder), running back Tyler Ervin (ankle) and defensive lineman Billy Winn (triceps) on injured reserve Wednesday, leaving them with just 50 players on their roster.
They will eventually fill the spots, but the key acquisitions that might get them through it happened over the last two weeks when they signed free-agent running back Tavon Austin and claimed defensive tackle Anthony Rush on waivers from Chicago.
Austin will most likely take over punt return and some receiving duties from Ervin and Rush will get a chance to fill in the handful of snaps Winn was receiving. But filling Greene’s position in the dime defense will be the toughest because he was becoming a key figure for coordinator Mike Pettine.
“I thought Raven was just now hitting his stride,” secondary coach Jerry Gray said. “You could see at the beginning of the year he had a little quad (injury) and then he came back and got over that, and then he started playing at a high level.
“He got a couple sacks this year, just doing his job and really, really competing. So, we’re going to miss him. Now it’s like, ‘OK, guys, you’ve got to step up.’”
It’s unclear if Greene’s season is over. He must sit a minimum of three games, but the awkward way Greene landed on his right shoulder while attempting to tackle Philadelphia Eagles punt returner Jalen Reagor could have caused a significant injury.
Gray’s first option for replacing Greene would be Will Redmond, who has played 31.6% of the snaps this year. Like Greene, he’s able to cover receivers and tight ends in the slot, but at 186 pounds he’s not built for playing in the box and Gray may have to lean on rookies Vernon Scott (6-2, 202 pounds) and Henry Black (6-2, 204) to handle those duties.
Redmond would be better suited for the coverage aspects of the job.
The best part of having Greene around was that he could do both, making it harder for offenses to exploit him.
“The scouts did a great job of bringing in two young guys, now you’ve got to go, Henry Black, and you’ve got to go Vern,' Gray said. "Now you know what? You’ve got to step up. It’s your time to help this team win. You’re young, you’re energetic, you’ve got to bring some energy to us.
“And now you’ve got to play a little bit more snaps than you’re used to playing. We’re going to work our way through what we’re going to do trying to replace Raven, which I think is going to be tough. But we’ve got a committee of guys that’s probably going to have to step up.”
According to NFL Network, neither Winn nor Ervin are expected to need surgery. Winn is anticipated to miss three weeks, Ervin to miss four. Ervin’s ankle is the third different injury he has battled this season, including ribs and wrist injuries, and so it’s not guaranteed he’ll return this season.
Of the three open roster spots, two of those will eventually go to center Corey Linsley (injured reserve/knee) and running back AJ Dillon (reserve/COVID-19). The Packers elevated Black from the practice squad to the active roster Tuesday to shore up the depth at safety with Greene hurt.
While the Packers may choose to fill the final spot with an injury replacement, they are able to elevate two practice squad players to the active game-day roster and one additional COVID-19 replacement as long as Dillon remains on the reserve list.
Additionally, tight end Jace Sternberger and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown are still in the concussion protocol after leaving Sunday’s game early and did not participate in Wednesday’s practice.
After Sternberger was injured in the second quarter, first-time practice squad call-up tight end Dominique Dafney saw six offensive snaps. He lined up at fullback as a lead blocker in place of Sternberger, who took over that role from injured tight end Josiah Deguara. Dafney is a candidate to be used as a call-up again this Sunday against the Detroit Lions.
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The Packers activated guard Simon Stepaniak from reserve/non-football injury, and he was a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice.
Stepaniak spent all of training camp on the non-football injury list while dealing with an ACL tear he suffered last December at Indiana. Stepaniak joins a relatively depleted interior offensive line room with Linsley and guard Lane Taylor (knee) on injured reserve.
The benefit of keeping Stepaniak on the 53-man roster is that he can continue practicing for the rest of the season, which will help him catch up with his teammates. It’s not likely he’ll play this season, but this will be an opportunity for him to get in tune with the pro game and be in position to compete for a starting job next year.
Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice after a nagging ankle injury kept him sidelined late last week. Smith’s participation indicates he didn’t experience a setback after Sunday’s game.
Dillon was present at practice doing rehabilitation work as he eyes a return from reserve/COVID-19, where he was placed Nov. 2.
Making a statement
Guard Lucas Patrick has had to fight for everything he’s had in the NFL, so it’s no surprise that after leaving the Bears game with a nagging toe injury, he returned last week and played the entire game against the Eagles.
Not only did he do that, but he switched positions, moving over to left guard so that coach Matt LaFleur could go with five veterans on the offensive line against a talented Eagles front seven.
Left guard Elgton Jenkins shifted from left guard to center, Patrick shifted from right guard to left guard, Billy Turner moved from right tackle to right guard and Rick Wagner started at right tackle.
“I've never really seen an O-line move like this,” Patrick said. “I mean, we've got Dave (Bakhtiari) playing left tackle and Corey really playing center and it feels like the rest of us can just be plug and play.
“It adds versatility to our O-line and it adds a little extra edge that we feel like no matter what we're doing, we're being put in the best position that we can because we can play different positions. We all rely on each other every play.”
The message LaFleur had for his players this week was to show up for the first half Sunday against the Lions.
“They might've put something in the A/C, like some drowsy (stuff) or something, because I don't know why but it proves true every year,” receiver Davante Adams said of the slow starts at Ford Field. “Since, like, 2015, we haven't done well in the first half, and we've got to come out and save our butts by playing as hard as possible in the second half.
“It’s something that Matt made us aware of, so it's something that we definitely got to go in with a different energy just starting out the game so we can put ourselves on the right foot going into halftime, to where we just have to finish the game. We don't want to be saying, 'Hey, let's finish,' meaning come back from a huge deficit and leaving points on the board.”