Packers likely lose Whitney Mercilus for season; Rashan Gary, Aaron Jones could return soon
GREEN BAY – On a first-and-10 early in Sunday’s third quarter, veteran pass rusher Whitney Mercilus beat Seattle Seahawks left tackle Duane Brown off the snap, wrapped both arms around quarterback Russell Wilson, and appeared poised for his second sack.
In that moment, Mercilus appeared to be finding a rhythm in his fourth game since joining the Green Bay Packers. It took a few weeks after arriving from the Houston Texans, where he was released last month, to settle into the Packers' defense. With him wrapping up Wilson, Mercilus’ signing was starting to pay off.
Just as Mercilus was beginning to establish himself in the Packers' defense, he appears to have departed it. Wilson broke free from the 10th-year veteran’s sack Sunday, and the force injured Mercilus’ biceps. Coach Matt LaFleur described it as a serious injury Monday, indicating his season is over.
“That’s a tough one,” LaFleur said. “Man, I feel bad for him. Shoot, he would’ve had potentially a second sack right there. Just the stability he brings to that room. This guy is a pro’s pro. He’s been doing it at a very high level for a long time. It’s just one of those unfortunate things that happens.”
Mercilus' injury is expected to be the most significant of three injuries the Packers sustained Sunday.
In the fourth quarter, Rashan Gary hyperextended his elbow while diving to make a third-down tackle on Seahawks running Travis Homer. Gary did not return to the game. LaFleur said tests were still being done to evaluate Gary. However, it is not expected to be a long-term issue.
“I am confirming the #DTrain is full steam ahead,” Gary tweeted, “and if it’s in my power, #BANEGary is on board.”
The Packers will be without Mercilus and could be without Gary when they travel to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. With Za’Darius Smith still on injured reserve, that leaves a very thin depth chart.
Much of the burden will fall on veteran Preston Smith. He has three sacks and seven quarterback hits in seven games, production closer resembling last season than his breakout 2019. Still, Smith might be the lone, proven edge rusher in the Packers defense this week.
Jonathan Garvin, the Packers' former seventh-round pick in his second year, could get his first start this week if Gary can’t play. Garvin has flashed some production in 268 snaps this season, recording 1.5 sacks and five quarterback hits. He remains more of a depth option, but this week might be thrust into a leading role.
The Packers released LaDarius Hamilton last week. They initially signed him off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad in September. He might be an option to replace Mercilus’ impending move to injured reserve.
Between Mercilus and Gary’s injuries, the Packers also dodged a potentially season-altering injury with running back Aaron Jones. The running back tore his MCL, the fourth time in his career – and third time in his right knee – he’s had an MCL tear.
LaFleur made clear the Packers got a break with Jones’ injury not being more severe.
“I don’t think it’s going to be long term. We’ll just monitor it on a daily basis and see how fast he can heal up, because he’s certainly a guy you want out on the field. He does so much for our team, just not only from a production standpoint, but also the energy he brings to our team is pretty contagious.”
Rodgers ready to return to normal
After 10 days away from his team, there was bound to be a period of adjustment for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Returning on Sunday to defeat the Seattle Seahawks 17-0, Rodgers—who’d just spent a week and a half in quarantine on the reserve/COVID-19 list—said the week of game prep on Zoom was “not ideal” and he was looking forward to a normal week of practice once again.
“I feel like Matt did a nice job of limiting the long play calls early in the game," Rodgers said. "It was a lot of running plays, but not a lot of cans or adjustment on them, so I think that made me settle in a little bit. But yeah, not ideal for sure. It’ll be nice to go through a full week next week.”
As LaFleur pointed out Monday however, it’s been a while since Rodgers has had a full week of practice. Three weeks to be exact, since a 24-10 win over the Washington Football Team. The Packers then had a quick turnaround to a Thursday night game against the Arizona Cardinals. Those practices were all walk-throughs. The following week, Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 before he was able to participate in a day of practice.
Further complicating the issue, Rodgers was playing with Davante Adams and Allen Lazard again for the first time since that Week 7 Washington game, and with Marquez Valdes-Scantling for the first since a Week 3 win against San Francisco.
"It’s not like he was getting a ton of time with these guys. And then he has different receivers from the last time he played and then you're getting all these guys back. So naturally, there was probably a little bit of a dip in terms from our passing game,” LaFleur said.
Rodgers went 23-for-37 for 292 yards (no touchdowns, one interception).
“I thought there were a lot of great things he did," LaFleur said. "And I think there were a couple of balls that he threw that we had opportunities to come down with and we didn't do it. So certainly there was the one throw to Allen Lazard, the deep one, I think that happened on third down that he’d like to have back. But for the most part I thought he threw the ball pretty accurately.
“I thought outside the red-zone (interception) when we threw the one up to (Josiah) Deguara, I thought for the most part his decision making was was on point as well. And I think that's such a credit to him to be so locked into the game plan, knowing inside and out, to be able to operate and function at a high level without any practice time.”
Now as the Packers prepare for a road trip to take on the Minnesota Vikings, Rodgers will get a full week of practice once again, allowing LaFleur to fold in specific designs to the game plan for the Vikings.
“I think the one thing that we're mindful of is just having some of those game-plan specific plays or new ads,” said LaFleur, adding of the Seahawks game plan, “we were cautious about to putting too much of that in without him getting those reps in practice to feel comfortable with those plays.”
Added Rodgers, “The best thing for me to be prepared is to be able to repeat the plays in practice and then the walk-throughs, you’re hearing them two or three or four times and it becomes kind of second nature.”
Special teams still not on same page
It’s no secret the Packers have struggled on special teams in recent weeks. It’s easy to point to missed field goals (and a muffed punt) as the difference makers in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. And in what became a low-scoring affair against the Seattle Seahawks—a game that was 3-0 heading into the fourth quarter—a missed field goal on the opening drive once again stood out as possibly detrimental.
“You never want to have that impact on a game and it has, I guess you could say, potentially two weeks in a row,” LaFleur said.
Against the Chiefs, the issue arose in the operation, so to speak. The snap and hold were not on the same page, putting the laces in the wrong place for the kick. Against the Seahawks, the laces were fine, but kicker Mason Crosby and holder Corey Borjorquez came off the field after the missed field goal in animated discussion.
On Monday, LaFleur said the film review indicated the timing was off in the unit.
“I think that was one of those things where maybe the timing was just a little bit off because when I watched the tape, you can see it. I think Mase (Crosby) started to lean a little bit more, anticipating the snap and then the snap was, the timing of it was a little bit off. We've got to obviously get that corrected.”