Packers planning 'all hands on deck' approach to improving on special teams
GREEN BAY - In the wake of “a lot of critical mistakes” for the Green Bay Packers special teams units against the Chicago Bears, Matt LaFleur gave his hardest charge for improvement yet Monday.
Traditionally, NFL teams stock their special teams with bottom-of-the-roster players. The Packers are no different. Each of their dozen players with at least 100 special-teams reps this season are reserves on offense or defense. Among their regular offensive or defensive players, defensive tackle Dean Lowry has the most special-teams reps with 96.
That philosophy could be changing for a Packers special teams unit that has been abysmal much of this season.
“I think we’re getting to that point where it’s all hands on deck,” LaFleur said, essentially describing the need for special-teams improvement as mission critical. “We’re going to have to ask guys to maybe do a little bit more.”
The Packers already have begun getting more special-teams contributions from regular starters. LaFleur pointed to cornerback Rasul Douglas as one example. Douglas made one of the game’s biggest plays Sunday when he intercepted Bears quarterback Justin Fields and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. In the fourth quarter, Douglas again made one of the game’s biggest plays, even if almost nobody noticed.
It was Douglas who baited Bears punt return gunner Kindle Vildor into running out of bounds. Douglas appeared to load up to give Vildor a hard shove off the line of scrimmage, but he pulled back at the last moment. Vildor, who appeared braced for collision, carried his momentum out of bounds.
If not for that, Amari Rodgers’ muffed punt return off his helmet would have given the Bears possession at the Green Bay 20-yard line, trailing by just 11 points.
“That was just a very savvy play by such a pro,” LaFleur said. “That is being attention to detail, and that is taking the coaching, knowing that guy had a tendency of doing that, and kind of drawing that penalty. Because obviously that was a pivotal penalty in the game.”
The Packers could be looking for more impact plays from their veterans on special teams down the stretch. What changes are in store remain to be seen. On Monday, LaFleur made clear changes are coming.
Injuries keep striking at familiar spot
Injuries have come to define the Packers' 2021 season. Even as the Packers rolled to a 10-3 record with a 45-30 win over the Bears, it came at a price, as yet another injury hit a decimated offensive line. Versatile lineman Billy Turner left Sunday’s game with what the club labeled a knee injury.
LaFleur wasn’t able to offer much of an update Monday, saying only, “We’re still kind of going through the evaluation process but certainly we’re hopeful for (a return) … I'm not even ready to comment on (a timeline) yet because we're still going through the evaluation.”
Turner’s exit thins an already-diminished offensive line. LaFleur didn’t have too much to add about center Josh Myers' return, either.
“I’ve got no updates on Josh other than the fact I can tell you, he’s working hard every day and when he’s ready, he’ll be out there,” LaFleur said.
However, LaFleur sounded hopeful when asked about left tackle David Bakhtiari. The three-time Pro Bowler has yet to appear in a game this season, while recovering from an ACL tear. He has been activated since mid-November but spent each game day on the inactive list. He also has not appeared at practice in nearly a month.
On Monday, LaFleur said they’ll see how the week of practice progresses for Bakhtiari.
“We'll get to Wednesday and we'll see where he's at but we're hopeful to have David out there,” he said.
When players miss extended amounts of time, there can be rust or long periods of reacclimation. LaFleur wants to let Bakhtiari’s return exist on an individual timeline, relative to what he can handle, even if that means returning sooner rather than later.
“I think every individual's a little bit different," LaFleur said. "You know, it's just one of those things that we're gonna take it a day at a time. When he's ready to go, he will be out there because there's nobody that wants to be up there more than Dave.”
Aaron Rodgers' toe update
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after Sunday night’s game that his fractured pinky toe was “worse” and that he “definitely took a step back tonight.”
Ahead of the bye week, the reigning MVP had mentioned the possibility of surgery on the toe. With only four games remaining in the regular season, though, Rodgers doesn’t want to commit to surgery still being a possibility.
“I can’t make that call right now. We’ll look at it [Monday] and do a film. That would be last resort for sure, but I’ll have to see what kind of setback it was (Sunday).”
LaFleur told reporters Monday that he had not yet spoken to his quarterback or received an update on the toe, but was open to whatever was necessary to prepare Rodgers to face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
“I'm sure that will be probably be a conversation that we’ll be having here shortly. But yeah, whatever he needs to be at his best for for Sunday.”
The Ravens, meanwhile, are hoping quarterback Lamar Jackson (sprained ankle) can play against Green Bay.
Running back Aaron Jones saw limited snaps in the second half against the Bears. LaFleur said on Monday that there was a small issue, but nothing long term.
“He got shaken up a little bit," LaFleur said. "He was fine. He was ready to go back in the game.”
Corner Jaire Alexander began his ramp up period last week, practicing all three days. While LaFleur said he isn’t certain of Alexander’s timeline for this week yet, he expects the corner to be on the practice field in some capacity.
"We’ll continue to take it on a daily basis but I would anticipate at a bare minimum, it’ll be individual (work),” he said.
Benkert’s meaningful snap
After nearly four years on practice squads, quarterback Kurt Benkert suited up on Sunday for the first time in a regular-season NFL game, serving as the backup while Jordan Love was on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Benkert’s commitment to his role with the Packers hasn’t gone unnoticed by LaFleur or Rodgers, which is why the latter made sure Benkert received a snap against the Bears. It was the favorite snap of every player: victory formation.
“He’s been, what is it, four years in the league and first time dressing,” LaFleur said, “Aaron came up to me right before that … he was like, ‘hey let’s let Kurt take the victory snaps.’ I said absolutely. So it's a well-deserved honor. He works really hard and he's been a really great contribution to that quarterback room.”