Silverstein: Martellus Bennett's slow start opens door for Lance Kendricks

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett (80) drops a pass in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 24, 2017 at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers have too many problems on the offensive line to be overly concerned that tight end Martellus Bennett is off to his worst start statistically since 2011.

At this point, they just might be happy if Bennett could play left tackle.

But as they prepare to take on the Chicago Bears on Thursday night at Lambeau Field, they need to figure out whether they’re overplaying their hand with Bennett and forgetting that Lance Kendricks is the best of their three tight ends when it comes to stretching the field.

Bennett’s stature — he’s 6-7, 275 pounds and nine years ago ran a 4.68-second, 40-yard dash — is intoxicating for offensive coaches, and while his production has fallen off the last two seasons, he’s coming off a year when he averaged more yards per catch (12.7) than any other during his career.

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In three games, he has played an incredible 92.5 percent of the snaps, lining up in 10 of the prescribed dozen or so skill positions in coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. For the record, he’s been in all six receiver spots (three on each side), three of four tight end spots (two on each side) and the fullback spot.

For all that exposure, Bennett has 11 catches for 102 yards (9.3 average) and no touchdowns. He has been targeted 21 times and of the 10 passes he didn’t catch, five were drops.

“We haven’t gotten a rhythm, we haven’t gotten a good flow,” Bennett said of the tight ends and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. “What reasons, I don’t know. Every game has been different. It’s not discouraging.”

It is not, however, the norm for Bennett.

He has been a faster starter over his last five seasons, including three when he was starting out with a new team.

In 2012, he had 16 catches for 187 yards and three touchdowns in his first four games with the New York Giants.

In 2013, he had 20 catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns in his first four games with the Chicago Bears.

In 2016, he had 15 catches for 247 yards and a touchdown in his first four games with the New England Patriots.

Bennett’s drops have been startling, but his inability to get open or break tackles is even more eye-opening. He had a 26-yard catch against Seattle and an 18-yard catch against Atlanta, but neither were the down-the-seam kind Jared Cook offered last season and he has averaged 6.4 yards on all his other catches.

“You have different circumstances,” Bennett said. “You may have to chip more, you may not be getting down the field more, they may be playing different coverages toward different teams because the way Aaron plays and the way our receivers are.

“Every week is different. At the end of the year, I’m pretty sure I’ll be in the place I always am. It’s a long year. There’s a lot of changes, a lot of things that are different. It’s just football.”

Maybe so.

Bennett has had his share of poor blocks where he’s late getting to his spot and the back has gotten hit. Sometimes he looks slow. He’s given up a pressure but no sacks. He also has destroyed a pair of pass rushers with one block in Atlanta.

The way things are going with the offensive line, Bennett is going to have to be a constant companion of one of the two tackles Thursday night. Assuming both David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga are inactive — they’re listed as doubtful — then whether it’s Justin McCray at left tackle and Adam Pankey at right tackle, or some other combination, Bennett’s going to have to block a lot.

That then raises the question of whether the Packers can get more out of Kendricks, the free-agent jack-of-all-trades who was signed in the offseason. The former Wisconsin tight end ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds at Wisconsin's pro day six years ago and had an impressive 38½-inch vertical.

Green Bay Packers tight end Lance Kendricks (84) breaks away for a long gain in the second half against Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Darqueze Dennard (21) and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (27) Sunday, September 24, 2017, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

In his first two years with the Rams, he averaged 12.6 and 12.4 yards per reception. But his numbers suffered from the Rams’ carousel of incapable quarterbacks, and he came to Green Bay hoping to benefit from playing with Rodgers.

In three games, he has only played 25 percent of the snaps. In his first two games, he caught two passes for 18 yards, but against Cincinnati on Sunday, when McCarthy was forced to use a bigger dose of double tight ends to help out the tackle positions, he caught two passes for 52 yards and a touchdown and drew a 33-yard pass-interference call.

His 51-yard reception was the Packers’ longest of the season until Geronimo Allison’s 72-yarder in overtime.

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When Kendricks has been on the field, Rodgers has a passer rating of 104.54, according to statistics compiled by the Journal Sentinel, well above his season mark of 93.1. The downside is that the running game hasn’t been very good with Kendricks on the field (2.3 per carry average), whether that’s with Bennett or as the only tight end.

Kendricks, however, has more of the seam-stressing speed that Cook offered and seemed to get the offense going last year. It was evident with the move Kendricks made on the 51-yard reception and the deep route he ran on the pass interference.

“He’s a very good route runner, he understands coverage, he certainly does a nice job at his break points,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “His ability to create separation from the defense and stay at a nice friendly angle for the quarterback, that’s certainly a strength that he has.

“And his ability also, yards after the catch, that showed up as well. That’s something that we knew Day 1 with him coming into the building that he would be able to help us in those areas.”

For his part, Martellus Bennett has to catch the ball when it’s thrown to him in tight quarters. Rodgers admitted this week that he doesn’t have a great rhythm going with his tight ends, but that rhythm would be better if Bennett could hang onto the ball.

It’s possible a decline in speed and/or frustration with not being a featured receiver has resulted in Bennett’s poor start. He acknowledged that he has not made plays that are there for the making, but he insisted it was too soon to draw a conclusion about his season.

“Sometimes you start pressing and trying to do too much when the ball comes your way,” Bennett said. “Then you have a drop because you’re trying to make a huge play instead of just playing in the strengths of the game and doing what you do.”

“I think when you don’t get in the flow early, you try to do too much and start pressing and start rushing your routes. It’s much easier when you know you’re going to get 10 targets. Everyone is different.”

Eventually, the Packers are going to need Bennett to show he’s the same guy he once was. Until then, Kendricks may find himself a much bigger part of the offense.

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