Week after week following final cuts, it was impossible to say whether general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy were right to keep seven receivers on the Green Bay Packers' roster.
Now we finally have the answer: Yes.
No one is suggesting the Packers had a bunch of stars sitting on their bench, but in the team’s 33-32 loss at Atlanta on Sunday, we saw three young receivers who as injury replacements produced under the bright lights of an NFL game: Trevor Davis, Jeff Janis and Geronimo Allison.
That’s not uncommon in the NFL. Sometimes injuries force unproven young players onto the field, and sometimes those players show they can play.
The result Sunday was that McCarthy’s running-back-depleted offense functioned just fine even without the two ailing receivers (Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb) who were supposed to make things work because they could double as part-time halfbacks.
Instead, McCarthy just plugged Davante Adams (12 catches) into that role, used Jordy Nelson as a de facto tight end, and went with a spread offense (usually four or five receivers) that put up 32 points and 331 yards.
Davis, Janis and Allison caught eight of the 11 passes on which they were targeted, and scored one touchdown apiece. No one is proclaiming them stars, but they played meaningful roles in an offense that produced more than the conventional and static lineups McCarthy had fielded earlier in the year with a healthy team.
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Davis stood out most among the three. He was drafted in the fifth round in large part because of his deep speed, but Sunday he showed awareness and skill along the sidelines on scramble-drill plays. That’s an essential skill when Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback, and twice when Rodgers broke the pocket he found Davis for tough catches along the boundary.
One was on a first down in the first quarter, when Davis worked his way back to Rodgers, stopped inches from the sideline, then made the extended, toe-tap catch of a ball with a flight path outside the field of play. The gain was 6 yards, so it wasn’t big, but that’s a successful first down that helps keep drives alive. It also showed a young receiver adapting to the NFL.
The other was a 9-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter. Davis ran a double-move fade to the back corner of the end zone, and when Rodgers escaped to the right, Davis worked back to the pylon. Against tight coverage, he kept his feet just in-bounds while making a tough falling catch of another ball that was out of bounds in the air. That’s the kind of point-producing play that will bring back a quarterback for more.
Janis, in the meantime, showed more reliable hands (four catches on four targets) than he’d displayed in training camp before breaking his hand. On his go-ahead 7-yard touchdown with 3:58 left in the fourth quarter, he lined up wide left against Falcons cornerback C.J. Goodwin and got off the line cleanly against Goodwin’s jam. Janis faked a fade route, then cut across the back of the end zone and caught a purposely thrown low ball in traffic with safety Ricardo Allen closing fast.
Again, the kind of play that will bring back a quarterback for more.
And Allison showed why the Packers saw enough to promote him from the practice squad just last week to replace Jared Abbrederis. On his 4-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter, he stayed alive in the end zone against the Falcons’ eight-man zone coverage while Rodgers escaped the pocket to his right, which created a throwing lane for an easy pitch and catch to a big (6-foot-3) target.
What Sunday showed is that the Packers’ young prospects at receiver are worth trying to develop, and the depth at that position is real. Their top two running backs (Eddie Lacy and James Starks) are out? No Cobb and Montgomery? No big deal.
No laughing matter
Going into the season, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix looked like he was ready to become a star.
The third-year pro has had a good season so far, but he hasn’t made the kind of game-changing plays the Packers have been looking for at that position since Nick Collins’ career ended in 2011.
Through seven games Clinton-Dix has no interceptions, no fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and no sacks. A couple plays Sunday illustrate how he has come up just short in those areas so far.
For instance, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s 47-yard touchdown pass to Taylor Gabriel was a chance for Clinton-Dix to make a great play.
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Demetri Goodson had decent coverage on Gabriel’s post pattern, and credit Ryan for throwing a perfect strike. Also, Clinton-Dix lined up on the opposite hash, so there’s no reason to think he was responsible for giving up the play.
But Julio Jones wasn’t on the field, so there was no receiver he had to double. And that was just the kind of ball that a star safety gets a jump on and either breaks up or maybe even intercepts. Clinton-Dix, though, was a step too late to make the play. Maybe his 4.58 40 speed was a factor as well.
Also, on a second down with 6:15 left in the second quarter, Clinton-Dix had a shot at what would have been an excellent interception. He was playing bracket coverage on Jones’ seam route, and Ryan tried to throw into a tight window.
Clinton-Dix was behind Jones, but if he’d driven on the ball he could have stepped in front of the receiver and intercepted. Instead, he played it safe by staying behind Jones and waiting for the ball, and Jones got a hand on it to prevent the pick.
To take that next step, Clinton-Dix has to make some of those plays.
» Kentrell Brice, an undrafted rookie safety, made an impressive goal-line tackle that nearly saved the Packers some points. On a third down from the Packers’ 12, Falcons running back Terron Ward caught a checkdown pass and had what appeared to be a clear shot down the sideline for the touchdown. Brice closed fast from the end zone and met Ward at full speed. The big collision knocked the back out of bounds at the 1. The Packers stopped the Falcons on first and second downs, but then running back Devonta Freeman scored on a third-and-goal.
» Nelson’s 58-yard catch in the first quarter was a well-designed play against the Falcons’ version of the Cover-3 defense. He lined up in the left slot almost as a tight end and was initially matched against linebacker Deion Jones. Jones passed him along to safety Keanu Neal. But with the way Atlanta plays its Cover-3, it’s really a one-deep zone, and Neal was lined up at the linebacker level, too. Nelson had a running start and blew past Neal, while the single safety, Ricardo Allen, couldn’t cross the field in time to break up Rodgers’ touch throw.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1