Packers receivers know big hits await
From TYLER DUNNE, Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay — He’ll absorb a wincing hit to the left rib cage again. Maybe Sunday. Maybe in the playoffs. And the next time Davante Adams gets drilled by a safety, it’ll sting even more in the cold, the wind, whatever weather strikes northeast Wisconsin.
So when asked if he graded Adams’ incompletion at Tampa Bay last weekend as a “drop,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett is direct.
“We expect him to make plays and catch the football,” he said.
‘Tis the season for difficult catches over the middle. No question, the rules have sanitized NFL secondaries. Still, last week was a reminder that more contested catches are coming. Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson — in rolling to 179 receptions for 2,640 yards and 23 touchdowns — are track-fast, sure-handed and see what quarterback Aaron Rodgers sees. But they’ve also toughened up at the point of contact.
The rookie Adams remains a work in progress. And catching the ball in traffic is a heightened focus for the tight ends.
Even in 2014, more bruises are looming — from Detroit’s James Ihedigbo this week to maybe Seattle’s Kam Chancellor down the road — for the Packers’ receiving corps.
Everyone probably should take the lead from Nelson and Cobb. Toughness, Bennett said, is “the starting point” for both.
“And then you start looking at all of the other things as far as just that mind-set, that attitude,” Bennett said. “That’s from a physical and mental standpoint — to have that toughness. That’s one of the greatest attributes you can have.”
A case of alligator arms could’ve infected this receiving corps, too. They all witnessed exactly how dangerous their position is on Oct. 20, 2013, the day Jermichael Finley ran a slant route against the Cleveland Browns and was drilled by Tashaun Gipson.
Finley laid motionless on the turf. Went numb. Hasn’t played a down since.
On Friday, this nightmare scenario is replayed to Cobb. Over the middle — any play, any hit — it could be over. Cobb didn’t blink.
“That’s the risk you have to take,” Cobb said, “every time you walk out onto the field.”
So Green Bay’s 1-2 punch operates accordingly. In Tampa, Nelson climbed the ladder for 28 yards on third and 13. From the right slot, he took a linebacker vertical, turned his post route in and knew what was waiting.
Nelson extended, took the hit and crashed to the turf. His shoulder pad hanging out over a grass-stained jersey, Nelson signaled “first down” and the Packers offense was finally in business.
Granted, the Ronnie Lott days — heck, the Roy Williams days — are long gone. This hit was JV compared to headhunters of yesteryear. Ask former Packers receiver Antonio Freeman. He suffered seven concussions, a broken forearm and a broken jaw patrolling the middle. After the jaw in 1998, he said he had to drink Ensure and milkshakes through a straw — for 13 days — with Mom in town.
Yes, life is much easier for receivers today. Slants. Crossing routes. Skinny posts. Freeman says safeties would wait to run through you. Still, Freeman knows toughness for all wide receivers is a must this time of year. His mettle in January — 482 yards, five touchdowns — keyed back-to-back Super Bowl runs.
“It’s about getting dirty and sacrificing for your teammates,” Freeman said. “It’s where receivers really make their mark.” Receivers have to take on a different personality — ‘Whatever I need to get done, to win, you have to be willing to do that.’ And with that quarterback in Rodgers, when he sees that type of attitude, he’ll want to get you the ball more.”
The accurate Rodgers, Freeman added, is the best at ball placement, at not hanging receivers out to dry.
However you slice it, hits are coming. The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks remain fueled with jarring safeties, allowing 33 points over their last five games. The way defenses are playing Green Bay — safeties back, cornerbacks aggressive — the contested ball will become the norm.
Cobb doesn’t remember many walk-the-plank catches from his days at Kentucky. But Bennett said he spotted toughness on the college film. And on those well-orchestrated street-ball extended plays in Green Bay, he’s often open to hits. This after a season-ending leg injury in 2013.
“You know you’re going to take a hit,” Cobb said, “so you might as well catch the ball.”
He says Rodgers “for the most part” puts the ball in the right spot. On a 30-yarder that sealed the win last week, Cobb was in full stride, eyes forward, safety safely away. When this 5-foot-10, 192-pound former college quarterback does get hit, he usually pops up.
“I love his attitude, I love his toughness,” Bennett said. “That’s part of his makeup, that’s part of who he is.”
Said Freeman, “As a punt returner, he took that fearlessness to the offense. He does the dirty work. He has displayed such a toughness for such a small guy.”
Bring up specific plays to Bennett and he pauses, tilts his eyebrows and says this is football. A “contact sport.” To him, all noise around the pass catcher should be irrelevant. Catch the ball. That’s the job description.
In practice, players emulate the on-site collision. Tight ends over-simulate distractions with position coach Jerry Fontenot. For one drill, he has his players clutch and smack and distract a pass catcher as the ball arrives. Throw after throw. No, tight ends haven’t been a top priority in the passing game, but Andrew Quarless did hang onto a 24-yarder when Philadelphia’s Nate Allen dinged him on a third and 18.
“The most important thing is catching the football — forget about everything else,” Fontenot said. “If you do that then everything will take care of itself.”
Like Adams, this remains a process. Like Adams, Quarless could see more opportunities. He has 29 catches for 323 yards on 45 targets. Fontenot said Quarless can still use his body as a shield more often, knowing he’s going to get hit. He tells Quarless, “it’s your ball or nobody’s ball,” and does see improvement in the vet.
Against this coverage, the level of difficulty rises.
“And obviously with playing Detroit — a playoff-caliber team — it’s going to be tight coverage,” Fontenot said. “So it’s all about catching the football and then reacting to what you see.”
A college season would be finishing up right now for Adams. Wisconsin winters are a tad different from Palo Alto, Calif., winters, too. Playoff runs past, Freeman, Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones had that thick skin needed over the middle.
While the Packers got away with two Adams drops in Tampa Bay, they may not Sunday. So for Adams, Bennett says it’s about “understanding what’s at stake.”
Wide receivers don’t relish taking hits over the middle. It is, however, part of the job.
“If I have to,” Cobb said. “I will.”
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