Five of Green Bay’s linebackers sat out the 27-24 victory due to injury, or recovery from previous injuries. On the inside, Nick Barnett is still resting his surgically cleaned knee, A.J. Hawk turned an ankle in Thursday morning’s practice, and Alex Joseph remains out with a quad injury. On the outside, Clay Matthews is still taking it easy on his hamstring and Brad Jones was added to the injury list after straining his shoulder in practice on Thursday night.
So that left four inside linebackers and four outside linebackers – basically a first and second unit – to get through the entire game. Desmond Bishop and Robert Francois started on the inside, backed up by Maurice Simpkins and two-way player Spencer Havner, who’s also a tight end. Meanwhile Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chillar started on the outside, with only Cyril Obiozor and Frank Zombo in reserve.
“It is what it is,” Bishop said. “Whatever we have out there, that’s what we’re going to go with and make the best of it.
“Once everybody gets back healthy and we figure out our good rotation, I think the linebacking corps can be real dangerous.”
Especially if the backups keep making plays. Havner made a huge one when Seattle was in position to possibly put the game away.
Seattle had just kicked a field goal to go ahead 24-17 early in the fourth quarter when Green Bay rookie returner Sam Shields mistakenly let a short kickoff bounce in front of him. He couldn’t corral it, and Seattle’s Kennard Cox recovered at the Packers’ 9-yard line.
But just three plays later, on third-and-goal, Havner stepped in front of tight end Cameron Morrah along the sideline and snagged Charlie Whitehurst’s pass for an interception, keeping the Packers’ deficit a manageable seven points.
Earlier in the game it was Zombo, a non-drafted rookie free agent from Central Michigan, continuing his bid to make the team.
In the third quarter, Zombo sacked Whitehurst for a 3-yard loss, and then a few snaps later, he smartly read a pass in the flat to fullback Owen Schmitt, got outside quickly toward the boundary and dropped Schmitt after a gain of just 1 yard.
“I just saw the ball come out, and it was one of those plays you see growing up when someone lights a guy up on the edge,” said Zombo, still visibly excited after the game.
As for his chances of making the final roster, Zombo just hopes to keep getting noticed. He had two sacks on back-to-back plays this past week in practice, and he has taken advantage of all the extra reps with so many linebackers injured. He ended up leading the team in tackles Saturday with five (four solo), and his sack was the only one the defense recorded in the game.
“I’m just giving it everything I have, and that’s all I can really ask for,” he said.
The same can be said as a whole for the relatively small group of healthy linebackers. With another preseason game coming up quickly on Thursday, it’s difficult to say if reinforcements will arrive soon enough.
“It’s tough right now,” Chillar said. “We’re definitely thin. But I’ve been in this situation before, and we have to pick up the slack. It’s unfortunate people have injuries, but that’s part of the game and it’s going to fall on us to carry the load.”
Another thin position
Running back wasn’t exactly well-stocked with bodies for this Seattle trip either, with Kregg Lumpkin and rookie James Starks both out with hamstring injuries. And then another back, rookie Quinn Porter, went down.
Starter Ryan Grant played only one quarter, and after Brandon Jackson played the second and Porter the third, Porter left with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter. That forced the offense to turn to fullback John Kuhn for a handful of runs.
Kuhn responded, gaining 30 yards on six carries, a hefty 5.0 yards per rush. A former feature back in college at Shippensburg, Kuhn never complains if the coaches want to put the ball in his hands. He also caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to cap the Packers’ first drive of the game, giving him two TDs already this preseason.
“It’s especially fun for me,” Kuhn said. “Fullbacks, we just sit in there and pound all day. So to be able to carry the ball a little bit, it’s a lot of fun.”
It’s fun for his teammates to watch, too.
“All he does is score touchdowns,” Rodgers joked. “He’s a core guy to our team. You ask anybody, he’s one of the guys who makes our team go. He doesn’t get a lot of credit all the time, he’s a great lead blocker, he catches the ball out of the backfield really well, he obviously runs the ball really well when he’s a single back, as he did at Shippensburg, and he’s a core special teams player as well.
“He’s a guy you love to have on your team, he does the dirty work and it’s nice to see him playing well.”
The Packers then went back to Jackson for the last half of the fourth quarter, and the improving veteran took advantage of Seattle’s backups being on the field. He made a nice stutter-step to cut back a run for 26 yards down to the Seattle 12, and then on the next snap he took a toss right and bolted straight to the pylon for what turned out to be the game-winning TD.
“(Fullback) Quinn Johnson, he provided a good block, and my eyes just got bugged when I had the end,” Jackson said. “I just had to get the ball in the end zone.”
Jackson finished with 11 carries for 80 yards, with 47 of his yards coming on four rushes in the latter half of the fourth quarter.
Ups and downs
Perhaps no one better exemplifies the ups and downs a young player can go through than Shields. The non-drafted rookie free agent from Miami continued to show his inexperience in some areas but his playmaking ability in others.
After muffing a punt in traffic in the preseason opener last week, Shields had another miscue on returns Saturday. He failed to catch a short kickoff and then was unable to gather it in before getting swarmed under by Seattle cover men. The Seahawks recovered at the Green Bay 9-yard line, and disaster was averted only when Havner got his interception to keep Seattle from scoring.
But Shields showed his promise as well. He displayed his blazing speed on the Packers’ first punt of the game midway through the second quarter, bursting downfield to drop Seattle return man Golden Tate for no gain.
Then in the fourth quarter, playing cornerback, Shields thwarted Seattle’s final drive by intercepting a pass at the Green Bay 36-yard line that deflected off tight end Anthony McCoy. Shields ran the pick back 19 yards across midfield, and the offense ran the final 2:50 off the clock to get the victory.
Aside than Porter, the only other injury in the game was to receiver Brett Swain, who had the wind knocked out of him but returned to the contest.
In addition to the aforementioned five linebackers and two running backs who didn’t play, cornerback Charles Woodson and receiver Donald Driver were healthy scratches from the game. Safety Atari Bigby (ankle) and cornerback Al Harris (knee), who remain on the PUP list, did not play.
Also, safety Derrick Martin was ejected in the game in the second quarter on a Seattle punt. Head Coach Mike McCarthy said he was told Martin punched a player for the Seahawks, but he hadn’t seen the video to comment on what happened.
Seattle game - Additional coverage