Insider: Thumbs up to Janis, down to red zone offense
A year removed from his breakout preseason, Jeff Janis had a slow start to his second training camp with the Green Bay Packers.
On the practice field, the former seventh-round pick has been mostly outplayed in the battle for the team's No. 5 receiver spot. It was Myles White — not Janis — who showed the most consistency working with the second-team offense. That changed Thursday in the Packers' preseason opener at the New England Patriots.
Janis caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Scott Tolzien, a big play on fourth-and-1. He beat Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan by a couple steps, which was significant. Ryan could be the Patriots' top cornerback this season.
"Jeff has great speed," Tolzien said. "He can stretch the field. You’re always going to peek at him out of the corner of your eye because he’s proven he can beat guys on the go. It was a good route by him and good protection."
The following 2-point conversion pass attempt was dropped by White, though he may not have had a clean view of the pass. White clearly dropped a pass from Tolzien later in the second quarter, when he adjusted to the football midair but was unable to finish the play.
Janis finished with two catches for 31 yards and the touchdown. Of the 16 Packers players to catch a pass — including White, with one catch for 10 yards — Janis had the second-most receiving yards.
Training camp is a marathon, not a sprint. There's a long way to go in the battle for No. 5 receiver, one of the more intriguing competitions on the roster. Janis made the roster last season because of his potential to make game-breaking plays. He had another one Thursday night, and it could be a turning point in the receiver competition.
The memories of last season's NFC championship game are still fresh.
Among several things that went wrong that Sunday in Seattle, the Packers' inability to finish drives was a significant reason they fell short of the Super Bowl. The Packers once again had red zone issues in their preseason opener.
The first-team offense twice drove the football inside the 10-yard line. Twice, they were held without a touchdown.
Their first red zone trip ended with an incomplete pass on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was pressured from the pocket, rolled left and tried to thread the needle to running back Eddie Lacy. His pass was too hot for the tailback to handle.
Near the end of the first quarter, the Packers once again moved the football inside the 10. This time, they settled for a 25-yard field goal from Mason Crosby.
"Obviously, we want to score touchdowns," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "That’s the goal. I’m more focused on the opportunities, and I think it’s great work to be in fourth-down situations, two point plays – you can’t really simulate that in practice. We compete against each other, but to have the opportunity to do it in a game-like setting – those are very valuable reps."
The Packers return all 11 offensive starters from last season, and this was just their first preseason game. It's way too early for any real concern. Still, the more the Packers' drives stall inside the 10-yard line, the fresher those Seattle memories will seem.
Did you notice?
■ LaDarius Gunter was the toast of training camp entering the Packers' first preseason game. The rookie free agent had two interceptions against Rodgers, the only Packers defensive back to do so. Still, after a 4.69-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine led to him being undrafted in May, Gunter had to prove his game could translate to an NFL field. He checked that off Thursday night. Gunter added his third interception of the preseason — his first in a game — when he picked Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
■ It wasn't the best night for offensive tackles. Starting left tackle David Bakhtiari got beat on fourth-and-goal from 2, forcing Rodgers to flee the pocket. He later gave up a sack. Backup right tackle Don Barclay may have struggled most. A year removed from an ACL tear that cost him the entire 2014 season, Barclay was rusty with his timing and footwork, including one rep against New England's Rufus Johnson where Barclay lost his balance in allowing a sack of quarterback Brett Hundley. Of the two, Barclay's progression in training camp will be most interesting to watch. Everyone recovers from an ACL tear differently.
"You just got to build off it and get better for the next time," Barclay said. "There were a couple of plays I didn’t like and would like to have back, but I’ll get back out there and work on it in practice.”
■ Rookie receiver Ty Montgomery was drafted mostly because of what he can offer as a return man, but it was surprising to see him take punt returns Thursday night. While he has gotten reps in practice, defensive back Micah Hyde was expected to get the first crack as punt returner. Hyde has three punt return touchdowns the past two seasons, but the Packers might not lose anything with Montgomery. The first time he touched the football, Montgomery returned a punt 14 yards to set up a short field.
■ For all their issues against the run last season, the Packers were one of five NFL teams that didn't allow a rush longer than 40 yards in 2014. So the 55-yard run they allowed against Patriots running back Jonas Gray was somewhat a rarity. Multiple things went wrong on the play. Outside linebacker Andy Mulumba was sealed. Inside linebacker Nate Palmer slipped before he got to the hole. But perhaps most troubling was second-year safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who had a chance to tackle Gray but also slipped. Clinton-Dix has been solid as a free safety in pass coverage, but he's struggled at times filling the box.
■ Packers quarterback Brett Hundley struggled early in camp, but the Packers-ascribed "football nerd" is picking up things quickly. Hundley was solid in his pro debut, completing 4-of-6 passes for 60 yards and a 10-yard touchdown pass to tailback John Crockett. His two incompletions were terrific throws to Montgomery, who couldn't come down inbounds on either player. As first impressions go, it doesn't get much better for a fifth-rounder quarterback.
■ There won't be a better position battle in camp's final three weeks than No. 3 running back. The Packers have plenty of talent competing for the right to back up Eddie Lacy and James Starks, and it showed again Thursday. While Rajion Neal has an advantage because of his versatility and familiarity with the Packers, competitors Alonzo Harris and John Crockett had better games. Harris, a physical runner, showed the outside burst to hit the edge on a 25-yard touchdown run. He finished with seven carries for 41 yards, Crockett had 10 carries for 26 yards and the receiving touchdown, and Neal had four carries for 15 yards.
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