It's a numbers game every year, especially for fullbacks.
An NFL roster can only hold 53 players. With John Kuhn's value on the field and in the locker room unquestioned, sixth-round rookie Aaron Ripkowski is showing why the Green Bay Packers may be inclined to keep two fullbacks on their roster this season. Even if a cut must be made elsewhere.
The Pittsburgh Steelers returned three kickoffs Sunday against the Packers. Ripkowski made the tackle all three times.
It was a continuation of Ripkowski's solid special teams work in the Packers' preseason opener at the New England Patriots, when he had two tackles covering kicks. Being a fullback, Ripkowski said, has helped him make the transition to full-time special teams.
"I’d say see some parallels," Ripkowski said, "and just being a football player. Everybody playing this sport should want contact and flying around to make plays. It’s really just a hustle thing. Special teams is all about hustle and technique. As long as you’re able to do the job and make reads and listen and pay attention, you can do a good job at it."
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On the Packers' first kickoff following their game-opening touchdown drive, Ripkowski initially ran past Steelers returner Dri Archer. He was able to peel back around, running down Archer before he reached the 30-yard line.
Ripkowski also had an open-field tackle against the speedy Archer in the open field following the Packers' safety in the first quarter.
It's a part of the game that mostly goes unnoticed, but coach Mike McCarthy surely appreciates his rookie's work on special teams this preseason. The Packers had the worst special teams unit in the NFL last season, according to the Dallas Morning News' annual rankings. Improving that unit touched all parts of the Packers' offseason.
McCarthy relinquished play-calling duties partially so he would have more time to work on the game's third phase. The Packers also specifically targeted players who could provide special teams support in the draft. So far, their sixth-round pick looks like he was well worth the investment.
With reports that Jordy Nelson tore his ACL in the first quarter – pending MRI results -- the Packers' fringe receiver depth became a lot more important Sunday.
That would especially put the spotlight on Myles White, a third-year receiver who has a chance to make the roster in Nelson's absence as a fifth receiver. White has had his moments in training camp, but Sunday was his second straight disappointing preseason game.
After struggling with drops in New England, White had two penalties Sunday. On the same play. Covering a punt, White failed to return to the field after stepping out of bounds. That unsportsmanlike penalty was negated because White also grabbed a facemask, a 15-yard personal foul.
"It was just a special teams technique error probably on one of them," White said of running out of bounds. "The other was just probably more so frustration being in camp. It’s just a play that happened on special teams. I feel a majority of the game I had a good day on offense and special teams-wise."
White had his share of plays, including a fourth-down grab that kept a drive alive. Still, he has only three catches for 23 yards in two preseason games. Jeff Janis, his primary competition for the fifth-receiver spot before Nelson's injury, had three catches for 25 yards on Sunday alone. Janis also had 31 yards and a touchdown in New England.
If he were just a fringe receiver with little hope of having a significant role on the field, White's production would be fine. With Nelson's season in jeopardy, White could very well be among those who see their stature elevate within the team. Special teams will be White's primary job if he makes the roster. His sloppiness Sunday, and lack of production in preseason games, won't cut it.
Did you notice?
■ Packers first-round cornerback Damarious Randall made his NFL debut Sunday, and he didn't wait to make an impact. Randall intercepted Steelers backup quarterback Landry Jones to start the second half, setting up the offense with a short field. It marked an up-and-down day for Randall, who also allowed a touchdown when he failed to cover perimeter receiver Markus Wheaton in the red zone.
“It was just ecstatic,” Randall said of the interception. “It was very, very exciting. Once I seen the ball, I knew the receiver was 6-5, I was like, ‘I need to go up and go get this ball.’ Either I was going to go up, or he was going to go up and get it. I just went up and I made the play.”
■ Defensive ends Letroy Guion and Datone Jones were available to play Sunday, but they played minimal snaps.. Guion (three games) and Jones (one) will be suspended to start the season, though Guion's suspension is being appealed. The Packers appear to be using their preseason games to get their replacements ready. On Sunday, Mike Pennel and Josh Boyd started at defensive end alongside tackle B.J. Raji.
■ Aaron Rodgers was pulled after two series Sunday, exiting the game after left tackle Don Barclay allowed a safety. Rodgers, who finished 4-for-5 with 57 yards, led an 80-yard touchdown drive on the Packers' opening series. He was seen later on the sideline icing his arm, but McCarthy said his QB could've continued to play if it were a regular-season game.
■ Right guard T.J. Lang left in the first half with concussion symptoms. Backup quarterback Scott Tolzien, who impressed for the second straight game, was also evaluated with concussion symptoms. The Packers were already without left tackle David Bakhtiari, who missed the game with what is expected to be a minor knee injury.
■ Undrafted rookie cornerback LaDarius Gunter continues to impress. Gunter, who played college football in Miami, preventing a possible touchdown in one-on-one coverage against former Clemson receiver and ACC foe Martavis Bryant. After having the team's lone interception against the Patriots, Gunter had three of the Packers' four defended passes Sunday.
-- firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood