Saturday night's intrasquad scrimmage included strong performances from kicker Mason Crosby and punters Chris Bryan and Tim Masthay after some struggles in the first week of training camp, as well as a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from running back Brandon Jackson.
Crosby connected on 7-of-8 field goal attempts, including makes from 51 and 53 yards out. His lone miss came on a 44-yarder that strayed wide left.
“I thought Mason kicked the ball very well,” McCarthy said. “I know he had the one miss. There was pressure off the right side, but I thought the ball came off his foot very well tonight, even on the kickoffs. We had to slow him up a little bit so we could get the returns.
“But he is a very, strong gifted kicker and we’ve just got to keep working the operation. As we know, the punting competition will factor into that. I definitely felt improvement in the whole field-goal operation and I thought Mason kicked the ball very well tonight.”
After working with quarterback Matt Flynn and punter Jeremy Kapinos as his holders last year, Crosby is attempting to find a comfort level with both Bryan and Masthay, with neither one possessing much experience in that area. Bryan, a former Australian Rules football player, had no experience holding, while Masthay’s work was limited at the University of Kentucky. But Crosby said that isn’t all bad.
“It’s also nice because we can kind of mold and work together so that it gets perfect for all of us, and make sure that we are comfortable all together as a unit,” Crosby said. “I said it earlier in camp, we have to earn that trust. We have to work on it and make sure that operation is flawless.
“Tonight was as close as we have been and we’ve just got to keep sharpening it up. As we move on to this week, it just needs to get sharper each preseason game and each week and that we are as perfect as we can be once the season comes.”
Besides the solid night for the kicking operation, Bryan and Masthay had comparable performances in a competition that is expected to continue through most of the preseason. Each got five punts, with Bryan posting a 50.4-yard average and Masthay an average of 47.0. Both recorded a long punt of 62 yards, and were placed in various situations, including being backed up into their own end zone.
“We wanted to try to create as close as we possibly can to a true game atmosphere, put pressure on them from the four areas on the field, and I thought they handled it very well,” McCarthy said. “It’s going to be a very good competition.
“They’re both very talented. I have no question that we are so much further ahead than we’ve been here the past two years just with the individual ability at the punting position. But as we all know, it’s all about performance, and we’re trying to create that environment to test these guys from a performance perspective as much as we possibly can.”
With safety Will Blackmon not dressing on Saturday night as he continues to work his way back from a torn ACL suffered last season, the Packers gave a couple of different players looks at the kickoff returner spots. Rookies Quinn Porter and Sam Shields each got an opportunity to show their stuff, but it was the veteran Jackson who made one of the plays of the night.
Fielding a Crosby kick at the 5-yard line, Jackson found a seam on the right side courtesy of some solid blocking and took the ball down the sideline untouched to the end zone for the score.
While Blackmon will surely factor into the competition at both return spots if he is able to return to full health, Jackson could be an option returning kicks as well.
“Brandon knows how the kickoff return needs to be ran,” McCarthy said. “It’s a little change of philosophy than we’ve done in the past, and he demonstrated tonight that he can do it the right way. He’ll definitely have an opportunity for that.”
The challenge for all of the units on special teams is to carry that over to the games, a task that starts next Saturday in the preseason opener against Cleveland.
“That’s good going into next week,” Jackson said. “We’re just trying to build off of that on kickoff return and continue to make big plays.
“There is a lot of emphasis on special teams. We have guys that are just buckling up and are ready to go. That was our soft point last year and we are just trying to keep it strong.”
Following a breakout campaign last year in his second season, the expectations for tight end Jermichael Finley in Year 3 have been ramped up even more.
Finley didn’t disappoint in Saturday night’s scrimmage, leading the team with four receptions for 55 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown reception over the middle from quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“I thought Jermichael had a good night,” McCarthy said. “I thought he had a productive night and the ball came his way. He had a number of one-on-one situations that him and Aaron were able to connect up on.
“I don’t think it is anything new. It’s a fact that being the starting tight end, his opportunities will definitely increase this year. But he is still young. He has work to do, but he had a good night tonight.”
During two-minute work with the No. 1 offense against the No. 1 defense, Finley made two nice grabs as the offense quickly moved the ball down the field. Finley’s first catch came near the right sideline, an 11-yard pickup that included him running over cornerback Brandon Underwood. On the very next play, Rodgers connected with Finley again, this time a 16-yard hookup down the left sideline that saw Finley wrestle the ball away from linebacker Desmond Bishop.
“I saw the ball in the air and I went up and made a play,” Finley said. “That is my game. A-Rod is going to put the ball in a position for me to make a play, and it’s just up to me to make that play.
“Three years into this offense, you should be comfortable at this point. I’ve just got to keep my head level, and the sky is the limit for the team.”
Swain comes out OK
Wide receiver Brett Swain, who sustained a season-ending ACL injury to his left knee last year in Week 6, had a bit of a scare with that same knee in Saturday night’s scrimmage.
Blocking on a kickoff return, Swain injured the knee when he was rolled into from behind by cornerback D.J. Clark. McCarthy said the injury didn’t appear to be as severe as the doctors thought right away, and Swain echoed that sentiment in the locker room afterward.
“I am doing great,” Swain said. “I am still solid, still feeling good. It was a little scary situation that happened. I got bent in a weird position, but everybody has got to take their first hit.
“Pepper (Burruss), the trainer, came over and sat next to me and said, ‘The positive that came out of it is that you know you can take a hit. You know you can get bent in a weird position and be manipulated in a bad position on the field and still come out strong and feeling good.'”
Other than Swain, the other injuries reported out of the scrimmage were wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who sustained a bruise to his side when he absorbed a big hit from safety Charlie Peprah on a catch over the middle, and linebacker Clay Matthews, who tweaked his hamstring.
There were 10 players that didn’t dress for the scrimmage, with linebacker Nick Barnett (knee), safety Atari Bigby (ankle), safety Will Blackmon (knee), wide receiver Donald Driver (no injury), cornerback Al Harris (knee), linebacker Brady Poppinga (concussion), running back James Starks (hamstring), defensive end Ronald Talley (knee), cornerback Charles Woodson (no injury) and linebacker Frank Zombo (ankle) all sitting out.