Elliott, Ryan stand out in preseason finale

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
Press-Gazette Media
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Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Andy Mulumba (55) celebrates a play with linebacker Jayrone Elliott (91) against the New Orleans Saints during Thursday night's preseason game at Lambeau Field.

Though Brett Hundley and Jared Abbrederis were the major storylines from the Green Bay Packers’ preseason finale Thursday night, two less-noticed players were worth noting as well.

Outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott and rookie inside linebacker Jake Ryan made a handful of plays each against the New Orleans Saints that suggested they’re not just filling out the bottom of the Packers’ roster.

Elliott is one of the Packers’ core special teams players but faces a hard climb for playing time at outside linebacker because of the players ahead of him: Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Andy Mulumba.

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Still, Elliott showed the kind of versatile skills the Packers covet in an outside linebacker. He made the team last year mainly because he flashed pass rush skills, but Thursday night he also made a couple stops against the run and broke up a pass in coverage.

Granted, this came against the Saints’ backups. Still, it’s an all-around skill set that Elliott didn’t have last year.

One play he made against the run especially jumped out, because run defense was the weakest part of his game last season after he made the team as an undrafted rookie.

With 4:27 left in the second quarter, Elliott lined up at left end and took on the Saints’ lead-blocking fullback, 250-pound Toben Opurum. Opurum had two steps to load up, but Elliott put his shoulder into him, separated from the block and tackled halfback Tim Hightower on a run up the middle for only a one-yard gain. That was textbook.

The next play, Elliott showed the disruptive pass-rush ability he’s flashed in the past. He again lined up at left end and was unblocked off the edge. Hightower was supposed to block him after a play-action fake, but Elliott beat him so quickly to the inside that Hightower’s diving attempt only grazed Elliott’s legs.

Elliott was in Ryan Griffin’s face so quickly that the quarterback had to fling a short dump-off pass to Opurum while backing up. The pass was high and behind Opurum, and he couldn’t make the catch. The only stat Elliott received for the play was a quarterback hit, but he’s the reason the play failed.

Later, Elliott made a play in coverage on a call that’s typical of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ zone-blitz scheme. On a third-and-eight with 10:15 left in the third quarter, Capers blitzed inside linebackers Ryan and James Vaughters, plus nickel cornerback Ryan White. The call left Elliott at left end in coverage instead of his usual role as a rusher.

Elliott picked up 195-pound halfback Marcus Murphy as he left the backfield, stayed on Murphy's hip on a short route over the middle and knocked down the pass from Griffin, which ended the drive. In coverage Elliott made a nice hip turn as Murphy cut and got in front of the ball against a player who ran a 4.53-second 40 at this year’s NFL scouting combine. That’s a heck of a play and showed the kind of agility you don’t often see even from the Packers’ frontline outside linebackers.

Ryan might have a quicker path to playing time than Elliott, especially if he can defend the run like he did Thursday night. For now, Nate Palmer is the Packers’ No. 3 inside linebacker, but Ryan appears ready to challenge him for that spot as the season goes on.

Ryan didn’t enter the game until the start of the second half, and he made his first play not long thereafter. With 13:47 left in the third quarter, the Saints ran Murphy at him. Ryan read the play, attacked, exploded past backup left tackle Nick Becton’s block and made the hit two yards deep in the backfield. That’s what inside linebackers are supposed to do.

When you watch the progression from Family Night through the preseason games, you sometimes see things start to click for young players. You saw that from Ryan about three minutes later, with 10:54 left in the third quarter.

Ryan lined up at the left hash and saw a run to his left. He reacted quickly enough that backup guard Cyril Lemon couldn’t get out in time to block him. As Ryan ran to the numbers he showed patience and didn’t make the common mistake of over-running the play. Then when halfback Edwin Baker tried to beat him to the corner, Ryan closed the gap and dropped him for a two-yard gain.

That kind of play gives reason to think Ryan could move past Palmer before too long.

Players brace for 'nerve-wracking' wait

Brandon Coleman of the Saints is tackled by Damarious Randall (not seen) and Sean Richardson as the Green Bay Packers host the New Orleans Saints Thursday, September 3, 2015, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

Double tight end

It’s tough predicting what general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will do with their final few roster spots. But after watching their team all camp, you have to wonder if they might be best served by radically breaking from their normal roster makeup and keeping only two tight ends.

That seems unlikely because McCarthy prefers loading up at that position, both to bolster special teams and for his offense.

But tight end is the weakest position on the roster. After Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless, none of the remaining three (Justin Perillo, sixth-round pick Kennard Backman and undrafted rookie Mitchell Henry) has done anything to demand a spot on the final 53. There’s room on the practice squad to develop two of them, though.

Keeping only two tight ends would be extremely light. But rookie Aaron Ripkowski should make it as a second fullback and can replace a tight end on special teams and even on offense. Ripkowski is a better blocker than any of them, as he showed late in the second quarter when his hit on linebacker Jerry Franklin cleared the way for halfback John Crockett on a draw play that picked up 10 yards.

A two tight end roster would save the Packers from having to cut one player from among several possibly on the bubble: Myles White and Jared Abbrederis at receiver; Lane Taylor and Josh Walker on the offensive line; Demetri Goodson at cornerback; and Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo at safety.

Again, this isn’t a prediction. McCarthy’s history says he won’t keep fewer than three tight ends. But if ever there were a year to go unusually light, this is it.

Suspending play

Letroy Guion closed his non-descript preseason with a lackluster performance against New Orleans. The 28-year-old defensive lineman, who begins a three-game suspension this week, played extensively (38 snaps, 61 percent of the defensive total) but didn’t make the stat sheet and wasn’t much of a factor in the middle of the line.

Guion bailed out the Packers last season with his quality play in place of injured B.J. Raji — Guion was better in ’14 than Raji had been in ’12 or ’13 — so it seems highly unlikely the Packers would cut him after his suspension. But the Packers have to be hoping this is ’14 all over again. Guion started poorly last year (after missing most of camp because of a hamstring injury) before becoming probably their second-best defensive lineman the final two-thirds of the season.

— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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