Packers' defense would be more than happy to avoid facing Panthers' Christian McCaffrey

GREEN BAY - Mike Pettine chuckled at the question, amused at the absurdity of the idea.

This week, the Packers apparently are getting a break with Carolina Panthers star running back Christian McCaffrey listed as doubtful because of a thigh injury. It's great fortune for a Packers defense that often struggles to stop the run. But Saturday night's matchup will just be a regular-season game in December.

In January, the Packers are likely to face a dynamic running back when the playoffs are on the line. Preparation makes perfect.

Would Pettine actually prefer to see McCaffrey this week?

"I'll be honest," Pettine said, "and say no. He's an elite player, and of course you never want a guy to be injured, and especially if it's a long-term thing. But we don't get too wrapped up in that. We're not talking, 'hey, we're getting ready for the playoffs, and we want to test our guys.' We want to win a football game.

"That is nowhere near where our mindset is as far as looking forward or wanting to test guys or prep or any type of thing. We're all about winning football games, and whatever we've got to do to win it."

Packers defensive end Dean Lowry (94) tackles Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) as Darnell Savage (26) moves in on the play last season.

McCaffrey has missed most of the 2020 season with injuries. After returning against Kansas City in early November, he injured his thigh and has not played since. Panthers coach Matt Rhule said earlier this week McCaffrey is not expected to play Saturday at Lambeau Field.

In McCaffrey's place, Mike Davis has become the Panthers' starting tailback. Davis has 555 yards on 137 carries this season, a 4.1-yard average. He also has five rushing touchdowns.

"Mike Davis is a pretty good running back in his own right," Pettine said, "and has done a really nice job filling in. They use (receiver) Curtis Samuel back there as well. They have some talent for sure at the skill position."

Crosby and Scott tackling situations

Kickers and punters have primary job responsibilities that are self-explanatory. A kicker kicks field goals and handles kickoffs. A punter punts. Over the past five games, however, the Packers’ kickoff and punt coverage units struggled to stop the return specialist three times, tasking kicker Mason Crosby and punter JK Scott with executing an additional responsibility of their job descriptions.

They had to make touchdown-saving tackles.

Scott failed twice. In Week 10 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, return specialist Keelan Cole spooked Scott on a juke at the Packers’ 20-yard line and blazed past him to complete a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Three weeks later, Scott experienced a déjà vu moment against the Philadelphia Eagles. Scott feebly attempted to push return specialist Jalen Reagor out of bounds, but Reagor’s stiff arm proved stronger and he found the end zone on a 73-yard return.

Crosby’s opportunity came last weekend against the Detroit Lions and the recurring nightmare ended differently. Return specialist Jamal Agnew fielded a kickoff in the end zone, cut to his left and ran down the sideline unabated. Crosby greeted Agnew with his left shoulder pad at the Packers’ 33-yard line and Agnew tumbled out of bounds.

“I have a competitive spirit that if the guy's running and he's kinda breaking free there, I'm the 11th man there on the kickoff team,” Crosby said. “So I kinda play like a free safety and just kind of float with it. Whenever I have that opportunity, I'm just gonna go shoot my gun and try to get him as close to the sideline, not let him cut back and just take the shot where I can.”

Agnew’s 71-yard kick return was his longest since last season (88 yards). While Agnew’s pride might be bruised after failing to reach the end zone, his wallet hurts even more. Lions special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs told local media that Agnew will “put a couple dollars in the swear jar” for getting tackled by a kicker.  

Crosby’s stop on Agnew marked his first tackle of the season. Regardless, the 14-year veteran kicker knows how to make a play when called upon — he has made 27 tackles throughout his time in the NFL.

“I've been fortunate enough to be able to get guys on the ground quite a bit in my career,” Crosby said. “But I think it's just a mindset from being a kid and just growing up playing football and trying to get the guy. These guys are such talented athletes that for me, if I can just get a piece of their leg or get on the ground and make him cut into somebody else, then that's what I'm gonna do to get him down.”

Injury update

After placing three players on injured reserve last week, the Packers were left with a mostly healthy 53-man roster.

Only three players have injury designations heading into Saturday night’s game against the Panthers. Tight end Jace Sternberger has been in concussion protocol for the past two weeks after leaving Week 13’s game against the Eagles early in the second quarter. Sternberger is out against the Panthers.

Guard Simon Stepaniak (knee), who came off of reserve/non-football injury last week, has also been ruled out. Offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said Stepaniak will likely be inactive for the final games of the regular season. If Stepaniak manages to improve each week and get acclimated quickly in the offense, his availability for the playoffs is “not out of the realm of possibility,” Stenavich said.

Wide receiver Malik Taylor (hamstring) is listed as questionable against the Panthers. Taylor popped up on the injury report late last week and was inactive against the Lions. He was a limited participant in Wednesday’s walkthrough and Thursday’s practice.

Meanwhile, the Panthers are dealing with a few significant injuries, including the one to McCaffrey (thigh). McCaffrey has missed 10 games this season with a variety of issues, including a high ankle sprain and a shoulder injury.

Starting left tackle Russell Okung (calf) is listed as questionable. He did not participate in practice Wednesday or Thursday. Starting free safety Tre Boston (hamstring), defensive end Austin Larkin (shoulder), defensive tackle Efe Obada (knee) and wide receiver Curtis Samuel (hamstring) are also listed as questionable.

Guard Dennis Daley (concussion) is listed as doubtful. Offensive tackle Greg Little (ankle) was placed on injury reserve Thursday.

Patrick Taylor practices

Running back Patrick Taylor participated in his first practice Thursday after spending the season on the reserve/non-football injury list. Taylor played four years at Memphis, where he sustained a foot injury and missed the second half of his senior season.

The Packers signed Taylor as an undrafted free agent after the 2020 NFL draft. The team placed him on NFI at the start of training camp as he continued to recover from his injury.

“He’s extremely intelligent,” LaFleur said. “The notes he takes in meetings, the questions he asks and you can ask him questions about receiver routes and he’s able to answer them. He’s as detailed as a guy I’ve been around. Basically outside of that quarterback room, it’s been super impressive to be around him and to watch him learn and grow and now it’s going to be fun to get him back on the field.

“I have to go back and watch it, but I thought the energy was great and we’ll try to keep progressing him through. He’s a guy we’re definitely excited about and when you get guys that are so invested in what they’re trying to do that gives them a chance to reach their full potential. And he’s a guy I’m really high on.”

Now that Taylor has started to practice, the Packers have 21 days before they must make a roster decision on him.