Put the ball near the goal line and watch their spirits rise.
A little more than 90 minutes into an otherwise uneventful practice on Monday, the Packers embarked on a series of team (11-on-11) periods with the ball in the red zone. Whether it was the day off on Sunday or the first sniff of true “scoring” during training camp, the intensity suddenly shot up.
Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, back after missing the last two practices, began hollering, “Defend every blade of grass!” Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his receivers started pulling out their patented play – the back-shoulder throw, as Randall Cobb and tight end D.J. Williams both scored on it. Running back James Starks and cornerback Jarrett Bush had the mightiest collision of camp thus far, as Starks barreled toward the pylon for a touchdown.
“We pushed the envelope as far as getting as many different plays as we possibly can into the periods, so we got a lot of reps today,” Mike McCarthy said. “A lot of team reps.”
A lot of competitiveness, too, which was the most noticeable it’s been in camp so far. So much so that plays involving the undrafted rookies were generating buzz. When fullback Nic Cooper took a handoff near the goal line and scored, some offensive players began chanting “Coop,” in deference to regular fullback John Kuhn, who remains out recovering from a knee injury.
Then, receiver Curenski Gilleylen’s leaping grab in the corner of the end zone nearly started an argument, as players bickered over whether he was in or out of bounds (he was out, though ruled in by the practice official who couldn’t see the play clearly).
The offense and defense went back and forth getting the best of one another. Cobb on a wheel route and Jordy Nelson on a crossing pattern both caught wide-open touchdowns, but then linebacker Clay Matthews broke up a pass for tight end Tom Crabtree at the goal line, and cornerback Davon House closed the period by jumping Dale Moss’ slant route and picking off Graham Harrell’s throw.
The tit-for-tat continued in a later red-zone period, this one with crowd noise piped in from the sideline. Amidst players arguing offsides calls, Nelson was wide open again for a TD before Charles Woodson stepped in front of Williams for an interception and House snagged another pick, when rookie QB B.J. Coleman tried a tough throw to Jarrett Boykin.
“It’s not going to be as crisp as you would like, but these are the way these practices go,” McCarthy said, referring to high-volume installations of the playbooks, which this week’s practices will be leading up to Friday’s Family Night scrimmage.
“I like the way they’re working through it. That was a long practice today. The humidity was up there a little bit. These are the type of practices where your team is built.”
One segment of the team that has established itself early is the offensive line. The first unit, left to right, has featured Marshall Newhouse, T.J. Lang, Jeff Saturday, Josh Sitton and Bryan Bulaga since camp began, and it’s not changing anytime soon.
Heading into camp, the only player thought to possibly challenge for a starting job was 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod, but he remains on the physically unable to perform list. Barring another injury, the Packers appear to have their starting five in the first week of camp for the first time in McCarthy’s tenure.
“I think it’s comfortable to stand up here and not answer the questions I’ve answered in the past,” McCarthy said. “Every year we’d sit here and try to determine when we were going to establish a starting offensive line. Now the obvious is being presented every single day at practice.
“When five men practice every single day together, obviously continuity comes quicker, and we’re able to do that right now.”
That group of five helped the offense get in the last punch of the day during the two-minute drill, with Rodgers driving the first team 60 yards in just over a minute. Completions to Donald Driver, Williams and James Jones covered 49 yards, and then Rodgers fired through a tight window to Crabtree for a TD with 5 seconds left on the clock.
Injury update: Tight end Jermichael Finley (concussion) did the non-contact drills without pads and is scheduled to return to practice in full pads on Tuesday. Receiver Greg Jennings (elbow) remained out for the second straight practice, and McCarthy said it could take a few days for the medical staff to get a handle on rookie offensive lineman Mike McCabe’s hip injury. Rookie tight end Eric Lair left practice with a knee injury after he got tied up on a play. Related links