GREEN BAY – Two relatively unknown Packers made names for themselves last October in Atlanta, and now they’re heading back there to show just how far they’ve come.
A year ago, safety Kentrell Brice and receiver Geronimo Allison were a pair of undrafted rookies barely getting their first taste of the NFL.
Then in Week 8 in the Georgia Dome, Brice laid a hit on Falcons running back Terron Ward in the open field at the goal line that won’t soon be forgotten.
And Allison, just signed to the active roster from the practice squad that week, caught a TD pass on his first pro reception from Aaron Rodgers.
Even though they came in a one-point defeat, the moments that launched their rookie campaigns, with more highlights to follow.
Now it’s back to Atlanta this week, in a new stadium, with an opportunity to show the new elements they bring to their games.
Brice, the 5-11, 200-pounder from Louisiana Tech, has begun his second season with much more responsibility in Green Bay’s defense. The Packers played their three-safety “nitro” package most of the Seattle game last week, giving Brice plenty of playing time.
The coaches wouldn’t trust him in that role if he hadn’t earned it, and Head Coach Mike McCarthy pointed to Brice’s confidence and communication skills as his biggest areas of growth.
“He has complete command of the defense. You could see it in the spring,” McCarthy said. “That jumped out to me in OTAs, and he definitely carried it forward into training camp. It’s a big reason he’s played as much as he’s played.”
His teammates have similar faith, and the mighty collision he won against Ward at the 1-yard line last season made quite the impression. It would have been even more memorable had the Falcons not managed to still punch it in, though it took them three more snaps.
“That just showed who he was, the mindset he has as a safety,” Pro Bowler Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. “That play there still sticks with me to this day. I see it in the back of my head now. That was unbelievable, man. The contact he made and stopped him.
“Just always finishing and never giving up is something important you can take away from that, just off that one play. That was the will of want to. He didn’t shy away from that at all.”
In the offseason, Brice worked out with former Pro Bowl safety Ryan Clark, who retired in 2015, and current All-Pro safety Landon Collins from the Giants. Clinton-Dix said he came back to Green Bay looking faster, and it’s showing, with an expectation he’ll make his share of plays in 2017.
“I’m just more comfortable back there,” said Brice, who stepped in for Morgan Burnett in the playoffs last January in Dallas and turned in a strong performance. “I just feel free and I play freely more.”
The same can be said for Allison, who feels better about the playbook, his routes and his reads compared to his rookie season.
Allison, who at 6-3, 200, brings different body type to the Packers’ receiving corps, became a key player down the stretch last year for the Packers. Filling in for injured teammates Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, over the last five games, including playoffs, he had 13 catches for 222 yards, plus a big TD in Week 17 at Detroit.
“It’s just incredible what he did last year going from a practice-squad guy to our fourth receiver, and sometimes playing our third receiver when Randall was out, and sometimes second receiver when Davante (Adams) was in the backfield,” said Nelson, who marvels at Allison’s footwork and size-speed combination.
McCarthy noted that his improved ability to get yards after the catch – on display when he took a short keep pass for 25 yards at Washington in the preseason – demonstrates the “second-year leap” he’s made.
“Growing up, I used to play the game like that,” Allison said. “I used to play running back in little league, and then in high school I returned punts. I was that style of player. I told my friends back home I wanted to get back to that guy, making people miss and trying to get upfield and get as many yards as I can.
“Last year, I just wanted to make the right play and make the catch. This year I’m trying to look for those defenders. My eyes are up, so I’m seeing guys flying around. I’m just trying to put my foot in the ground and make people miss.”
Allison is back on the roster after serving a Week 1 suspension. How much he’ll be used in Atlanta will depend on the game plan, but he feels he can step in for any of the Packers’ top three receivers with as thoroughly as he knows the offense now.
“I’m very anxious,” Allison said about his return this week. “I’m glad to be back with my brothers.
“Being that utility guy, to be able to spare anybody, go out and compete, can help us be more successful on offense.”