It’s a harsh reality in the NFL, and the competition is fierce, especially among rookies trying to make it in the pros.
But even if there won’t be room for all of them, several Green Bay rookies and first-year players gave the coaching and personnel staffs something to think about with some impact plays in the second half of the Packers’ 59-24 blowout of the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday night at Lambeau Field.
In chronological order, here’s a rundown of those noteworthy moments:
--On the Colts’ first possession of the second half, with their No. 1 offense still in the game, rookie outside linebacker Frank Zombo chased down a scrambling Peyton Manning and while sacking him knocked the ball loose.
Fellow linebacker Robert Francois, who was on the Packers’ practice squad last year, scooped up the ball off one bounce and raced 35 yards all the way to the Indianapolis 2-yard line, setting up a short TD pass from Matt Flynn to John Kuhn.
This marked the third straight preseason game that Zombo, who started due to injuries at outside linebacker and continues to make a strong push for a roster spot, made a significant play. The non-drafted free agent from Central Michigan ended up playing basically the entire game on Thursday and led the defense with nine tackles.
--On the first snap of the fourth quarter, Flynn threw a short fade to rookie tight end Andrew Quarless in the end zone, and Quarless fought off being held by Colts safety Mike Newton and hauled it in for an 11-yard TD.
Quarless, a fifth-round draft pick who earlier on that drive had a 9-yard catch and finished with the two receptions for 20 yards, is fighting for a spot within a deep tight end group. The touchdown is the first in the preseason scored by a tight end other than starter Jermichael Finley, so it certainly helps the Penn State product’s cause.
--No. 3 quarterback Graham Harrell directed a 13-play, 90-yard TD drive that consumed 7 minutes, 18 seconds of the fourth quarter. The best Harrell might be able to do is make the practice squad, considering the Packers kept only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster last year, but this drive was his most impressive work thus far for the former Texas Tech star.
He converted a third-and-1 with a sneak, then picked up a third-and-6 with a 7-yard pass to first-year receiver Jason Chery. On the next third down, he began a string of three straight completions, hitting rookie Chastin West for 15 yards, rookie Shawn Gore for 18 and a nice rollout throw, and then giving running back Kregg Lumpkin a screen pass that he took for 22 yards and a first-and-goal.
Harrell finished 4-of-5 for 62 yards on the night after going just 4-of-8 for 36 yards in the first two games.
--Chery, a non-drafted free agent in 2009 from Louisiana-Lafayette who was signed after training camp began this year, has been able to display his speed in practice, and he finally got to do so in a game. With just over 5 minutes remaining, Chery took Pat McAfee’s 50-yard punt at his own 25-yard line, had some daylight along the left side and turned on the jets.
Chery went 75 yards, for the most part untouched, for the score. After the game, he said he thought about looking back but figured he shouldn’t or it would have slowed him down. Truthfully, it wouldn’t have mattered with how quickly he blazed by everyone.
“I said just keep on going and see if I can reach the end zone, and once I reached there, it was like a dream come true,” Chery said. “It’s very big, but at the same time they’re still going to wait and see what you’re going to do the next play. They’ll say you did a good job, but now are you going to continue doing it? It’s consistency.”
There was a flag on the play, and Chery admitted he was nervous when the officials were huddled in a discussion. But the penalty was on the Colts, and his touchdown stood. Considering he got a late start and stands just 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, Chery may be the longest of longshots, but he got a chance to show a little something.
“How could you not be excited about that young man?” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “He gets an opportunity and we’ll definitely give him some more opportunities, I can promise you that, as we move forward into this next week.”
--Last but not least, rookie cornerback Sam Shields snagged an interception for the second straight game. With less than a minute left, Shields made a very athletic play, leaping high to get his hands on Curtis Painter’s pass intended for receiver Dudley Guice. He brought it down and held on as he crashed to the turf.
Shields converted from receiver to cornerback last year in his final season at the University of Miami and said when he was first learning the position, he kept falling down trying to backpedal. But now he’s thrust himself into the competition not just for a roster spot but for the critical nickel corner position with the instincts and athletic ability he’s shown.
He came into the game Thursday late in the first quarter with the No. 1 defense in the nickel, and Peyton Manning targeted him right away, firing a pass over the middle to Pierre Garcon for 24 yards. But Shields held his own after that, finishing with three passes defensed, including his second preseason interception.
“I have to do more,” Shields said matter-of-factly, not believing he’s won a roster spot yet, even if his odds keep getting better. “When the next practice comes, I have to keep working hard. We have another game Thursday. If I’m here, I just have to make some more plays next Thursday.”
The “if I’m here” reference reflects the knowledge all the young players have that the first roster reduction will occur sometime between Friday and Tuesday. The Packers must cut five players to get down to 75, and then the roster must be reduced to 53 players on Sept. 4, two days after the preseason finale at Kansas City.
One, almost two
Rookie safety Morgan Burnett isn’t fighting for a roster spot; he’s already a starter on defense. But he is trying to carry over his collegiate success to the pro game as quickly as possible, and he took a big step forward in that regard on Thursday.
Burnett, who had 14 interceptions in three seasons at Georgia Tech, got his first preseason interception when he picked off Manning in the second quarter. Burnett stepped in front of a short pass intended for Garcon and returned it 11 yards to the Indianapolis 18.
That was almost his second interception of the game, actually. In the first quarter, on the Colts’ second drive, Burnett ranged over to his left on a deep pass intended for Garcon, leaped in the air and got his arms on the ball. But Garcon managed to tip it away and it fell incomplete.
“I’m thinking, ‘OK, I got one,’ but then I dropped it, and I have to make best of those opportunities because you never know when they’re going to come around,” Burnett said. “Lucky for me it came around in the same game in the same half and I made the best of that one.”
If there’s been one glaring negative on offense for the Packers through the first three preseason games, it’s been the ball security of the running backs.
On Thursday night, both Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson fumbled the ball, with Jackson’s being recovered by the Colts at the Indianapolis 6-yard line and taking away a great scoring opportunity. Those were the third and fourth fumbles by the running back group in the preseason, with Grant losing a fumble in the opener against Cleveland on the offense’s first snap, and Kregg Lumpkin also fumbling once against the Browns, though his (like Grant’s against the Colts) was recovered by the Packers.
“We had the ball on the ground too many times, so we need to eliminate that from our play,” McCarthy said. “And it’s kind of gone on a little too much, and I’m talking about in the practices and so far in the preseason. We train it every day and we need to get rid of that. So that’s the only thing I was really disappointed in offensively.”
The return units, which were guilty of two turnovers in the first two games, nearly had another as well. Punt returner Will Blackmon had a punt go right through his hands on his own 11-yard line late in the first half, but he recovered it himself.
Back in action
Lumpkin hadn’t practiced or played since injuring his hamstring in the Browns game two weeks ago, but he was back on the field Thursday to continue his fight for a roster spot. He posted 26 rushing yards on nine carries, including a 1-yard TD run to cap the 90-yard drive in the fourth quarter. He also had a 22-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass on that drive, giving him 48 yards from scrimmage in the game.
Similarly, rookie running back Quinn Porter didn’t practice all week after spraining an ankle last Saturday in Seattle, but Porter suited up and played as well. He had three carries for 12 yards but then left the game with a knee sprain when he was upended near the goal line.
In addition to Porter, other players who were injured during the game were cornerback Brandon Underwood (shoulder), linebacker Desmond Bishop (hamstring), and linebacker Cyril Obiozor (quad). Only Obiozor was able to return to the game.
Sitting out for the Packers were receiver Brett Swain (knee), linebackers Clay Matthews (hamstring) and Brad Jones (shoulder), offensive linemen Bryan Bulaga (hip flexor) and Allen Barbre (back), defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf), receiver Greg Jennings (back), and the three PUP players – safety Atari Bigby (ankle), cornerback Al Harris (knee) and running back James Starks (hamstring).
Additional game coverage - Aug. 26