Packers’ rookies falling short on big plays
By Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
~Green Bay – Of the Green Bay Packers’ 53-man roster, a dozen of their players are rookies.
Of those dozen, try naming a single play any of them have made that has been the difference in the Packers winning a game.
Receiver Trevor Davis’ 55-yard punt return?
Nice. It helped set up a touchdown that gave the Packers a 21-13 lead over Atlanta in Week 8, but they lost the game.
Linebacker Blake Martinez’s interception?
Definitely a heads-up play, but the Packers were up, 26-10, with 4½ minutes to go and were facing a third-string quarterback.
Safety Kentrell Brice’s goal-line tackle?
A stunning hit on Falcons running back Terron Ward preventing him from scoring after an 11-yard reception. But the Falcons scored on a 1-yard run two players later.
Linebacker Kyler Fackrell’s strip sack of Eli Manning?
The rookie beat backup right tackle Bobby Hart just before halftime and forced a fumble the Packers recovered. It led to a field goal that made it 17-6, but the Packers already were ahead and continued to outplay the Giants in the second half.
Nose tackle Kenny Clark’s recovery on Fackrell’s forced fumble?
As patient as you need to be with rookies in the NFL, the Packers aren’t getting enough. On defense, they’ve gotten two sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. On offense, they’ve gotten 10 carries for 32 yards and six receptions for 62 yards and two touchdowns.
At this point in previous seasons they had gotten a lot more out of their rookie class.
Last season, rookie corner Damarious Randall already had a game-winning pass breakup against San Diego and two interceptions, and fellow rookie corner Quinten Rollins had a two-interception game against St. Louis.
The season before, center Corey Linsley started from Day 1 and was a big reason the Packers were able to split four difficult road games over the first six weeks of the season.
In 2013, running back Eddie Lacy established himself as the lead back with four games of 90 or more yards rushing in the first half of the season, including 120 in a victory on the road against Baltimore. Also, left tackle David Bakhitiari started from Game 1 on and cornerback Micah Hyde returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown in Week 8.
In 2012, cornerback Casey Hayward had two interceptions in a critical win at Houston in Week 6, and Nick Perry had two sacks before injuring his wrist and missing the rest of the season.
Almost every year he has been general manager, Ted Thompson has found a rookie who has had an immediate impact. But part of relying on rookies to fill a quarter of your roster every year is understanding that they’re not going to produce the way they will next year or the year after that.
Thompson’s draft-only philosophy puts enormous pressure on the coaches to patch holes with players who still are learning the game. So while the Packers feel good about their overall rookie class, they are still waiting for results.
“I would think if you stopped today, you’d feel good about where our rookie class is today,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I mean, participation, the fact that they’ve been in positions to have opportunities, and continue to grow. So I think it’s definitely been a positive for the contributions from our rookie class.
“I think the fact that at this point in the year, they’re not rookies anymore, so it’s time to close the gap between the inexperienced and experienced players on our team, and we need to take a step forward just in our quality of play.”
Probably the best example of a rookie class coming into its own at just the right time was 2014 when receiver Davante Adams, tight end Richard Rodgers and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix all made enormously important plays in a victory over the New England Patriots.
The Packers won three of their last four after that and made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
Heading into Game No. 10 Sunday night at Washington, the Packers can’t wait any longer for one of their rookies to come of age. They need Clark, Fackrell, Martinez, Davis, Brice and others to more than just show up.
“It’s kind of expected now from your rookie draft class when they come in here,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “It really doesn’t matter where you’re picked in the draft. We need you to help out now.
“No different in this case. In an ideal world, everyone would be healthy and be out there every week. I know it’s cliché to say, ‘next man up,’ but we’ve got a lot of young guys that we’re counting on.”
The rookies know they need to produce, but part of being new to the NFL is knowing you’re behind everyone else.
Clark, the first-round pick, desperately wants his play to lift the defense to new levels, but he just turned 21 years old, is playing one of the toughest positions for a rookie and is grinding through the first 20-game season of his life.
“Definitely, it’s tough,” Clark said. “I would just say it’s tougher mentally, trying to understand that everything is not going to go your way all the time. There’s some adversity you have to get through.
“Everybody wants to make more plays. I know I’m making progress. Just watching the film from the first game against Jacksonville to now, I’m 10 times better. I’ve just got to keep fighting.”
Against Washington, Clark will continue seeing a steady diet of snaps, Fackrell may see a dip with Matthews returning, Martinez will be counted on more with Jake Ryan out and Brice is going to have to tackle tight ends a lot better than he did last week against Tennessee.
And that’s just on defense.
“We’ve seen where we’ve had to depend on a lot of those guys down the stretch, and they improve,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You reach the point where, hey, you’re not a rookie anymore. You’re going to be playing in big games, and you’ve got to go out and produce.
“I expect them to play a lot better now than they did in the beginning of the season, just because of the experience.”
And the expectation is that it happen right now.
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