Jets 23, Packers 14: Backup quarterback Kurt Benkert is playing his way onto the roster bubble after another solid preseason showing
GREEN BAY - Kurt Benkert received the first-and-10 snap and started backward, like he’s done thousands of times in his football life.
It is perhaps the most routine part of playing quarterback position, the snap. Quarterbacks backpedal the way they breathe, natural and effortless, without thinking. Except this time, as Benkert stepped back with his right leg, he felt an impediment in the way. It was Green Bay Packers rookie guard Royce Newman’s left leg, a fallen tree trunk blocking the road.
Benkert sat there a few helpless moments on Lambeau Field’s grass as the New York Jets defense swarmed. It was just one aborted play. He was content to live for second-and-13.
Only, on second-and-13, Benkert tripped again.
“That was the longest drive of my life,” Benkert said, shaking his head minutes after the Packers lost to the Jets 23-14 in a preseason game Saturday.
It was long because of what happened next. This time, Benkert got up off that grass, shrugged off a tackle from Jets defensive lineman Tanzel Smart, and somehow ran for 5 yards. Third-and-8. Another quarterback might be content to get back to the sideline, where it is safe.
Benkert stepped up in the pocket and connected with receiver Malik Taylor for 9 yards.
It was that kind of afternoon for Benkert. Two steps backward, one massive forward pass in the right direction. With that, a drive that appeared destined for failure had life. The Packers marched 81 yards on 19 plays, a marathon that consumed 10 minutes, 19 seconds of clock.
The drive ended on third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Benkert lofting a pass over Jets cornerback Bryce Hall and safety Ashtyn Davis to tight end Jace Sternberger in the back, right corner of the end zone.
“The thing that I’m most proud of,” Benkert said, “is that drive that could have went to crap, and it didn’t. And we ended up just rolling with it. I think that’s just a testament to how I like to play, and just keep on going.
“I’m not going to be gun shy because something went wrong.”
Benkert has been anything but timid through two preseason games. He finished 18-for-25 for 151 yards, one touchdown, one interception and an 83.9 rating against the Jets. His right arm was most effective on third and fourth down, when he completed 7 of 12 passes for 76 yards, a touchdown and a 104.86 rating. Six of Benkert’s seven completions went for either a first down or touchdown.
The Packers' long touchdown drive was paved through third and fourth down. After his third-down completion to Taylor, Benkert fired a first-down completion to Reggie Begelton for 11 yards on fourth-and-2. That was followed with 21 yards to Taylor for a back-shoulder throw to the left sideline, then the score to Sternberger.
“There was a lot of adversity on that drive,” LaFleur said.
There was even more adversity later in the afternoon. In the second half, Benkert tossed an interception to Jets rookie cornerback Brandin Echols. The pass was thrown behind Packers running back Patrick Taylor on a slant, though it was unclear who was at fault. It was the second straight week Benkert had an interception spoil his final numbers.
Taylor was not Benkert’s primary read on the play. LaFleur said his play call was for two-deep safeties, and instead the Jets only had one deep. Benkert quickly found Taylor as his checkdown. The tailback was cutting a Texas route across the middle of the field.
Benkert tried to connect with Taylor as he broke his route outside to in, but their timing was off.
“I think it just got away from him,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “The back was running an angle route out of the backfield, and I think he just kind of airmailed it a little bit.”
The pick didn’t obscure what has been a bright preseason. Benkert came out slinging in the second half of the Packers' preseason opener against the Houston Texans. With Jordan Love unable to play because of a strained throwing shoulder, Benkert’s surprising progress continued Saturday against the Jets.
Benkert had pulled off a mild upset to arrive at this place, starting the Packers’ second preseason game. He entered as an afterthought. The third quarterback on a team where only two mattered. Benkert was not the three-time MVP. He was not the franchise’s future.
Benkert was a placeholder. His ticket to Green Bay was punched after a May tryout. He won it, mano a mano, over Chad Kelly. No matter if Benkert was the more seasoned prospect, spending the past three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. The other contestant was Jim Kelly’s nephew.
Love was supposed to dominate this training camp. Benkert made Saturday’s showcase against the Jets his own.
“Kurt has done a really nice job,” LaFleur said, “and definitely is going to make it tough on us to decide which way we want to go.”
That’s where Benkert’s trajectory is heading. When the Packers make their final cuts at the end of camp, Benkert will be in their plans. They’ll have to decide whether it’s possible to sneak him through the waiver wire without him getting claimed, enabling them to stash him on their practice squad. If not, the Packers might be forced to reserve one of their coveted 53-man roster spots for a third quarterback.
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When camp began, that possibility seemed remote. LaFleur left nothing uncertain Saturday: Benkert will be the third quarterback if he makes the 53. Love, despite his inexperience, is the primary backup behind Aaron Rodgers.
Benkert has one week left to force the Packers into making a decision they surely didn’t expect when camp began.
“I feel like I’ve done everything that I could,” Benkert said. “I felt like I’ve put myself in pretty good position. But at the end of the day, I know it’s a numbers game. I can play like absolute crap, and they need me, and I’m on the 53. Or I can play really well and they don’t need me, and I’m on the practice squad. So I kind of ditched that mindset a few years ago, and we’ll see what happens.
“But I’m excited with how I played, and obviously there’s still more room to grow.”