GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers will — although he’d probably debate whether he needs to — play in Thursday night’s preseason game at the Baltimore Ravens.
But that doesn’t mean Brian Gutekunst has to feel good about it.
The Green Bay Packers general manager acknowledged Tuesday that he’s a bit like his worry-wart predecessor and mentor, Ted Thompson, when it comes to the preseason and having his most important players on the field for games that don’t count.
“I worked for Ted for a long time, so there’s a lot of holding breath during the preseason,” Gutekunst said. “He always liked to say our best offseason was the lockout year.”
That was 2011, when negotiations between the NFL Players Association and league owners dragged into training camp and wiped out the entire offseason program. (The Packers did play all four preseason games that year, however.) Thompson was also fond of saying that he wished he could “bubble wrap” his players, a line he used on a nearly annual basis.
“I mean, there’s a balance,” Gutekunst said. “You know what your team needs to do to prepare itself to play in the National Football League to win games, and there’s a lot of work to be one to get to that point. But at the same time, yeah, (you worry). And it’s not just with Aaron. It’s with a lot of our guys.
“It’s an unfortunate part of our game, but it’s certainly one that I’m well aware of (the risks). Availability and durability are not only talents, but they’re also skills to be developed. And that’s part of being a professional is getting out there each and every day.”
Rodgers and the rest of the offensive and defensive starters are slated to play “a quarter or so” against the Ravens, head coach Matt LaFleur said after Tuesday’s practice.
“Just kind of dependent on how we perform out there,” LaFleur said. “That’s the plan going into it.”
LaFleur sat 16 of his 22 starters in last week’s opener against the Houston Texans, including Rodgers. In fact, only left guard Lane Taylor and wide receivers Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdes-Scantling were in uniform among the 11 expected offensive starters last week.
On defense, the only expected starters to play were rookie safety Darnell Savage, defensive lineman Montravius Adams and inside linebacker Oren Burks, who suffered a chest injury on the opening defensive series. The Packers also held out veteran slot cornerback Tramon Williams, who figures to play three-quarters of the snaps this season given how many sub packages defensive coordinator Mike Pettine utilizes.
“We’re always fluid with (playing time), dependent upon how the game goes and how much time they have,” LaFleur said. “But everybody should be prepared to play a quarter or so.”
If that includes Rodgers, that means dealing with the Ravens’ heavy pass rush. While Baltimore defensive coordinator Don Martindale likely won’t send all of his blitzes after Rodgers, the Ravens defense, which ranked tied for 11th last season in the league in sacks (43) and ranked 10th in the NFL in pass-rush win rate last season, according to ESPN.
“I think it’s a work in progress,” LaFleur admitted when asked about the offense’s pass protection. “I feel really confident with our 1s, that they’ll be able to handle a lot of the pressures. Now, it’s not like we’ve got a full-fledged game plan, but you better have some semblance of a plan for them. They’re an extremely difficult defense, but there is some carryover in terms of some of the stuff that we do from a defensive perspective.”
No one will ever get the mistaken impression that Rodgers likes the preseason. Asked after practice what he hopes to accomplish during his time on the field Thursday night, Rodgers replied, “(Staying) healthy. Efficiency. Communication sorted out the right way with the plays (as they’re) coming in and then the delivery to the line and the adjustments within the plays.”
Asked if he’s comfortable with the protections in LaFleur’s scheme, Rodgers replied, “I feel comfortable, but we’re going to have to handle a lot because they do have a great scheme and they bring a lot of different things at you. Great personnel. Not sure how much they’re going to play all their guys, but it’ll be a good test for our first time running this offense in another stadium on the road against a really good defense.”
Rodgers went into preseason expecting to play more than he has in past exhibition seasons, but since he’s not expected to play in the Aug. 29 preseason finale against Kansas City, he’ll have to get his game work in against the Ravens and in the team’s Aug. 22 road trip to Canada to face the Oakland Raiders in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Packers open regular-season play on Sept. 5 against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
Ever since Pro Bowl wide receiver Jordy Nelson suffered a season-ending knee injury during an August 2015 preseason game at Pittsburgh, the Packers have been leery as an organization of their most important players seeing extensive preseason action. In the three preseasons after Nelson’s injury, Rodgers played two offensive series (26 snaps) in 2016; three offensive series (26 snaps) in 2017; and just one offensive series (seven snaps) last year.
Rodgers has long maintained he gets more out of practice, where the offense runs its full playbook, than he gets out of preseason games, where the game plan is vanilla to limit what regular-season opponents are able to scout. There was a play during Tuesday’s practice that clearly illustrated that, too: On third-and-17 during a move-the-ball period in 11-on-11, Graham ran a post route, got behind safety Adrian Amos, adjusted his route to Rodgers’ throw outside and scored a 32-yard touchdown that sent a stream of offensive players downfield to celebrate.
In Rodgers’ experience, those scenarios have more value — and come with less risk — than preseason games.
“Jimmy and I have great communication, and I think we have really chemistry on the field,” Rodgers said after practice. “It’s just a matter of getting in positions where he is the first read, where he is the second read or where he is in the initial progression of the play, because you see the talent.
“You saw the adjustment today on that throw where I had to throw him out of it, and he’s just so smooth in making those plays. He has a great feel for distribution on plays and spacing and timing. He’s a Hall of Fame talent, and we’ve got to get him the opportunities so he can reach his potential in this offense. I think we’re going to do it based on the schemes and the approach in getting him in some of those positions where he can be the first or second read in a progression.”