Cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby, who have been on the physically-unable-to-perform list (PUP) all season, are eligible to practice this week, and they’ll be joined by safety Anthony Smith, acquired in a trade Monday with Jacksonville.
Harris and Bigby, of course, are veteran Green Bay players who have been recovering from knee and ankle injuries, respectively. Smith has been in Green Bay previously, too, though not in the regular season. Acquired as a free agent in March 2009, he was released in the final roster reduction at the conclusion of training camp last year.
How quickly any of the three will be ready to play in a game is up in the air, but with safeties Morgan Burnett and Derrick Martin having been lost for the year to knee injuries, and with the nickel corner position rotating almost weekly due to more minor ailments, the depth will be welcome whenever it’s available for game action.
“Just want to see them out there in the group drills, in the team drills and just see where they are,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said, speaking of the PUP players. “Because they can’t do any more than they’ve done from a rehab standpoint. So it’s time to cut those guys loose. I know they’re excited about it, and we’re excited to get them on the practice field.”
Rookie running back James Starks, another PUP member, also is scheduled to practice for the first time Wednesday, but with Starks having missed his senior college season at Buffalo due to a shoulder injury and then all of training camp with a hamstring injury, he hasn’t played in pads in nearly two years. That makes the evaluation of his readiness different than for the others, McCarthy said.
But in the case of all three PUP players, once they start practicing the Packers will have a three-week window in which to place them on the active roster, release them, or put them on injured reserve. Reports from the medical staff are that all three are ready to participate in football drills.
“They’re ready to cross this last hurdle,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy confessed that players coming back from injuries are always going to say they’re ready to go, so it will be up to the coaches to monitor their progress and make sure they’re capable of contributing in a game before they’re activated. That likely won’t mean being able to play a full game of 70 to 80 plays for a while, and it’s unclear how much work is needed to prepare for an initial part-time role.
“We have to be smart,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, speaking about Harris and Bigby. “You don’t know how they’re going to feel after one day of practice out there. You can’t just put them out there and overwork them. We have a period of time here to evaluate that.
“They’ve both played a lot of football for us, and it will be nice to get them out on the practice field. Hopefully that gives us more options. But we’ll have to see where they are. Obviously when you’re a player, you want to jump out there and be right where you were when you left off, but it doesn’t always work quite that way.”
The Packers are hoping their transition will be relatively smooth, however, and the same goes for Smith, who is familiar with the defensive system from his days playing for safeties coach Darren Perry in Pittsburgh and from a full offseason and training camp in Green Bay last year.
Perry said Smith already showed substantial recall Monday in the meeting reviewing Sunday’s game, and he expects him to carry that to the practice field.
“He shouldn’t have any trouble coming in and picking up what we’re doing,” Perry said. “He brings a physical presence. He’s a natural playmaker. So that big-play ability you look for in a safety, he certainly possesses that. Hopefully he can bring some of that to us.
“I know he’s going to be on our active roster, and if he’s on our active roster, he’s going to have to contribute. Whether that’s in our base defense, sub defense or special teams, we’re going to try to get something out of him.”
Considering the depth issues on defense, the Packers would love to get something out of all the additions sooner rather than later, but there are no guarantees. Perry noted one thing working in their favor is these three defensive backs have all played together before, so there’s at least some chemistry to draw from initially.
“They know one another,” Perry said. “They know the styles of play that they all played with, so I think that’s going to make the transition that much smoother. Will there be some bumps in the road? Absolutely. But the guys know what they’re getting into, and they know the expectations. When they step on that football field, there’s no excuses, so they won’t be out there unless they’re ready.”
While much attention has been paid to the illegal-formation penalty on Miami’s fourth-quarter punt, it was the sequence of punts by both teams in the overtime that had just as big an impact on the outcome of the game.
After the Dolphins went three-and-out on the first possession of overtime, punter Brandon Fields boomed a 50-yard punt from his own 27, and Packers fullback Korey Hall was called for an illegal block in the back early during Tramon Williams’ return. Following the penalty, the Packers took over on their own 16-yard line, giving the Dolphins a combined 57-yard net on their punt.
Contrast that with the Packers’ punt following their three-and-out. Punter Tim Masthay’s 37-yard boot was fair-caught at the Miami 48-yard line. That’s a 20-yard net difference from Miami’s punt, and not entirely coincidentally, the Dolphins took over 21 yards ahead of where they had punted the ball from in the first place.
The 20 yards in field position allowed Miami to get into field-goal range after picking up just two first downs, and Dan Carpenter’s 44-yard kick won the game.
“The opportunity to change the field position did not happen, especially when we needed it there in overtime,” McCarthy said of Masthay. “So he needs to do a better job.”
Masthay finished the game with a 38.0-yard gross average on five punts, with a 33.4-yard net. He placed two inside the 20 with no touchbacks.
“His two inside-the-20 punts were very good -- one on the 9, one on the 12 -- and then his three up-the-field punts we need more out of,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said.
The delayed penalty
Neither McCarthy nor Slocum changed their stance on Monday that linebacker Robert Francois was lined up legally over the long-snapper, a yard off the ball, after reviewing the game video. Francois was called for an illegal formation on a Miami punt in the fourth quarter that gave the Dolphins a first down and led to their go-ahead touchdown.
“Robert Francois was lined up a yard from the center,” McCarthy said. “That’s what the film shows.”
The penalty stemmed from a new rule in 2010 that prohibits defenders from lining up directly over the long-snapper on a punt unless they are at least a yard off the line of scrimmage. The officials ruled Francois had lined up illegally.
What bothered McCarthy nearly as much as the call itself was the delay that preceded it. After the Miami punt, there was a TV timeout, and the officials conferred and eventually dropped a flag on the ground during the break in the action, after the Green Bay offense and Miami defense, respectively, had taken the field. Following the timeout, the penalty was announced, and both teams changed units as Miami kept the ball.
“When pre-snap penalties are called, illegal formations are called, offsides called, usually the flag comes out immediately,” McCarthy said. “The same situation occurred in our Detroit game, the flag came out immediately. Now, just the timing of it is what sets you back a bit, after a timeout, to be in the huddle and then the flag to come out that late. I think the process is something that needs to be looked at. If someone lines up wrong, the flag should be thrown immediately, in my opinion.”
The play in the Detroit game McCarthy was referring to was the same call for illegal formation on Lions defensive tackle Corey Williams, lining up over Green Bay long-snapper Brett Goode on an extra-point try in the second quarter.
“Why it took so long for the flag and so forth, I do not understand that part,” McCarthy said.
Slocum also didn’t understand why the flag was thrown when what the Packers did has become such a common alignment across the league.
“Four out of our first six opponents have aligned the exact same way against us,” he said. “The opponent we’re facing this coming week uses that alignment.
“We were within the rules. It’s a judgment call, like any number of penalties throughout the course of a ballgame.”
Finley’s season over
Tight end Jermichael Finley was placed on season-ending injured reserve in a move that is “completely in the best interests” of his future, according to McCarthy. Finley injured his knee at Washington in Week 5 and underwent surgery last week with the hope that he might be able to return by season’s end, but that’s not going to happen.
In other injury news, linebacker Brady Poppinga will undergo arthroscopic knee surgery on Tuesday following his injury on Sunday. Also, receiver Donald Driver (quad) and linebacker A.J. Hawk (groin) both sustained injuries in Sunday’s game and will miss some practice time this week, but McCarthy didn’t indicate their availability for this week’s game is in doubt.
The status of linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) and defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle) remains uncertain. Both missed the Miami game and McCarthy said he wouldn’t know more about their potential return until later in the week. Also, tackle Mark Tauscher (shoulder) is not yet ready to return, but he is getting better.