The first preseason game didn’t decide any of the three fairly high-profile battles for starting jobs in the Packers’ lineup.
Whether it’s outside linebacker, left guard or running back, the competitive atmosphere is likely to remain throughout the preseason, and the players involved can feel it.
“If I have a day where I slip, I lose sleep over it, I really do,” said Frank Zombo, who is in a three-way heat with Erik Walden and Brad Jones for the starting spot on defense opposite Clay Matthews. “I’m nervous walking into the locker room the next day. I think that’s a good mentality to have, every day fighting for your job.”
That’s the way the coaches want it, even if the ultimate naming of a starter at that position becomes somewhat symbolic. Head Coach Mike McCarthy reiterated on Monday there could be different personnel groupings on defense that will utilize all three players, and the fact that all three have played significantly in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ system could help each find a role.
“All of us are confident in the plays,” Zombo said. “I think coach has complete confidence in all three of us on that side. One person is going to try to separate themselves from the pack, I guess.”
How they do it is the key. None of the three made any “splash” plays on Saturday night in Cleveland to get a leg up but, according to Zombo, it may not come down to that.
“Whoever is going to make the least amount of errors, I would think, is going to be up there,” he said.
In other words, with five Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers on defense in Matthews, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Nick Collins and B.J. Raji, the most reliable, assignment-sure guy who can handle all three responsibilities of an outside linebacker – set the edge against the run, rush the passer and drop into coverage – will do nicely.
“We’re all still pretty even,” Zombo said. “It’s still a competition, and that’s how we’re attacking it.”
The same goes for left guard, where rookie first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod and third-year pro T.J. Lang continue to battle it out.
After reviewing the film of the Cleveland game, the coaches concluded little, other than that they want to see more film. McCarthy declared he has no timeline for making the call.
“T.J. probably graded out a little better than Derek, but we’re not making a decision today,” McCarthy said. “It’s important to get those guys as many reps as possible.”
The two resumed their flip-flopping between left guard and left tackle in practice on Monday, as McCarthy noted it’s important for both to learn multiple positions. Working side by side the two are doing exactly what the coaches envisioned with this arrangement. They’re using the competition to get better, because they have no alternative.
“I had to do the same thing as a freshman in high school, I had to do the same thing as a freshman in college, and I’m doing it now,” Sherrod said. “It’s competition and you have to push yourself no matter what level you’re at.”
The players, and that includes running backs James Starks and Ryan Grant in their own head-to-head duel, talk about the competition being within the friendly and family-like atmosphere of the team, but make no mistake, anybody fighting for a job is out to win it.
The running-back battle could be on hold temporarily, as Starks sprained an ankle in Cleveland and bowed out of practice after one play on Monday. McCarthy said he’s hopeful it’s just a day-to-day deal for Starks, but time will tell.
“I just wanted to see how it was,” said Starks, who obviously wants to avoid anything like the prolonged absence from his rookie season due to a hamstring problem. “I felt it and I didn’t feel comfortable practicing with it. There isn’t any swelling or things like that, so everything should be fine.”
Starks added some weight in the offseason and said he paid extra attention to his hamstring to hopefully prevent any recurrence of that injury.
Grant took the bulk of the snaps with the first-team offense on Monday, but there’s still a long way to go to sort out all the backfield roles. Rookie third-round pick Alex Green missed the Cleveland game with a quad injury, so Dimitri Nance and undrafted rookie Brandon Saine have been getting more reps of late.
McCarthy said Green is “closer than further away,” as far as returning, but as the only back without experience in the offensive system other than Saine, he needs to get on the field to find his niche in the backfield.
“We feel like we definitely have options there,” McCarthy said.
Translation: The competition remains afoot.
Other notes from Monday:
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers usually gets into one of his rhythms at some point in every practice, and he was helped out by a couple of superb catches by his receivers. On a crossing route, Jordy Nelson reached behind himself to snare Rodgers’ bullet two-handed for a nice gain. Later, Chastin West jumped and reached around cornerback Pat Lee to snag a short sideline pass behind Lee’s back. Lee lost out on that play because he never turned around to find the ball, the same thing that happened to him on the touchdown pass he surrendered to Josh Cribbs in Cleveland.
Tight end Jermichael Finley (glute) and cornerback Sam Shields (hip) didn’t play in Cleveland but were back on the practice field at full speed on Monday. Tight ends Andrew Quarless (groin) and Tom Crabtree (ribs) got hurt in Saturday night’s game and sat out. In addition to Green, receiver Brett Swain (hamstring), defensive back Brandon Underwood (knee), cornerback Davon House (hamstring), cornerback Brandian Ross (hamstring), defensive end Chris Donaldson (shoulder), guard Adrian Battles (Achilles) and tackle Chris Campbell (shoulder) remained out.
On the first-team offense’s last snap of practice on Monday, Rodgers hit rookie Randall Cobb on a deep slant and Cobb split the secondary for a long TD. The offensive unit then proceeded to “practice” their in-game celebration by sprinting the entire 70 yards to the end zone to catch up with Cobb and do some high-fives and body-bumps. Lang grabbed the ball and spiked it, and right tackle Bryan Bulaga could be heard joking, “That’s my conditioning for the week.”
Linebacker Desmond Bishop circulated via his personal Twitter account on Friday that he had left his ID on the team plane at Dulles International Airport and therefore wasn’t allowed into the White House with the rest of the team. “It was pretty disappointing,” Bishop said on Monday. “It was a historic time, something you can tell your kids and grandkids one day. To have missed that opportunity, it definitely stung a little bit, but it’s spilled milk.” So what did he do while the rest of his teammates toured the White House and presented President Obama with his keepsakes? Caught up on sleep. “I called my folks, shouted out a few tweets, and took a nap,” he said.