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FOOTBALL

Gorgeous evening, but ugly offense

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GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers correctly pointed out earlier in the week how much Family Night has evolved over the years.

While it’s always been part-practice, part-pep rally — replete with pee-wee football players and late-night fireworks — it has gone from a full-fledged scrimmage with live tackling to essentially a gussied up regular in-pads training-camp practice, which it was on Friday night.

For Rodgers, regardless of the format, the night has seemingly always been eventful, from his debut as a rookie first-round pick in 2005 (when he completed exactly one pass), to his debut as the starter in 2008 (when he was booed by many of his own team’s fans, who wanted Brett Favre to still be the quarterback), to last year, when after his offseason of discontent, he returned to the fold.

“Family Night is a lot of fun, and,” Rodgers said with a smirk, “usually the weather is a wild card.”

Not Friday night, it wasn’t. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, unlike so many nights over the past two decades, when lightning delays forced fans into the Lambeau Field concourses or canceled the event altogether. (“One year I remember we had like 25 pizzas delivered, we’re playing cards in the locker room, eating pizza, waiting to see if we were going to actually do this,” Rodgers recalled.)

But while the weather was exquisite, the execution on offense was not quite as beautiful for the announced crowd of 50,112.

Whether that was a function of the Packers’ much-ballyhooed No. 1 defense playing well or the offense struggling to find itself — or a little bit of both — is hard to say, head coach Matt LaFleur confessed.

“It’s a double-edged sword, right? I hope it’s (because) our defense is really stout and they’re going to be very tough to deal with,” LaFleur said before the post-practice fireworks went off. “I think the one area that we have to improve is just the consistency up front.

“I mean, granted, I think we have a pretty good defensive front. Our front seven can be pretty salty, so I hope they’re making our offense that much better.”

The Rodgers-led offense, which had struggled against the for much of the first two weeks of camp against the front-line defense, didn’t get much going during a scripted 11-on-11 period early in practice, although Rodgers did step up against mild pressure to throw a strike across the middle to Juwann Winfree.

Then, during a red-zone period, the No. 1 offense once again got the better of the offensive starters. The group’s lone touchdown came on a Rodgers-to-Marcedes Lewis 10-yard strike across the middle that rookie inside linebacker Quay Walker, the first of the team’s two first-round picks, nearly intercepted.

On the No. 1 unit’s other six snaps, including two against the second-string defense, the offense didn’t reach the end zone, with veteran safety Adrian Amos breaking up a Rodgers pass intended for Randall Cobb, and backup safety Shawn Davis nearly picking off a Rodgers throw to Allen Lazard.

A later 11-on-11 period then ended with Rodgers throwing deep to Lazard and missing him along the left sideline, the ball landing well out of bounds. Television cameras for the live broadcast showed Rodgers shaking his head on the sideline following that period.

“I definitely think we left some plays out there,” Lazard said. “But once again, this is a practice. It’s not necessarily we’re scheming up against our defense or anything. We’re trying to get better right now. We’re trying to find and lay our foundation as an offense, figure out guys to be able to fill those roles that are vacant from last year.”

The Jordan Love-led No. 2 offense did have back-to-back big plays shortly thereafter, with Love eluding pressure to step up and make a nice on-the-move throw to impressive rookie wide receiver Romeo Doubs, and Love then throwing a 54-yard touchdown to another rookie wideout, Samori Toure, with first-round pick Devonte Wyatt in Love’s face as he released the ball.

Since quarterbacks wear red no-contact jerseys in practice preventing them from being hit, LaFleur said it was a “bang-bang” play and that Love might not have been able to make the throw had Wyatt been allowed to hit him. Love admitted it was close, but that he might have eluded Wyatt and still found Toure.

“I’d definitely be taking a shot right there, but the way he came open, as long as I can get it out there and just make some type of throw down field, he’ll be able to make the play,” Love said. “But yeah, he’s definitely going to get a hit on me.”

The No. 1 offense’s best play on an 11-on-11 move-the-ball period was a 26-yard Rodgers-to-Sammy Watkins completion against Eric Stokes, who lobbied for an offensive pass interference call after the play. Rodgers and Watkins connected for another completion on the ensuing play. That series ended with a 2-yard AJ Dillon touchdown run.

Asked during the week to assess how the offense had fared against the defense, Rodgers said he’s seen essentially what he expected with an offensive line in flux and young and unproven wide receivers and tight ends finding their way against a defense that, on paper, might be among the NFL’s best this season.

“I think it’s kind of gone how we thought it would go,” Rodgers admitted. “The defense — other than the first day — has been giving us some issues up front. But there’s been some days we’ve ran the ball really well, I think.

“Red zone drills usually favor the defense early in camp. I don’t think we’re doing a great job with some of the protection pickups. But the best part is, there’s a lot of film to correct. Coaches love that, and a lot of guys are starting to click in and have some better practices.”

The offensive coaches continued their search for the right five-man combination on the offensive line with the team’s top two linemen, David Bakhtiari and Elton Jenkins, still working their way back from major knee injuries.

The No. 1 line had Yosh Nijman at left tackle, Jon Runyan at left guard, Josh Myers at center, Jake Hanson at right guard and Royce Newman at right tackle, although on some snaps, Newman moved inside to right guard and rookie fourth-round pick Zach Tom worked at right tackle with the 1s.

“Obviously it’s always tough when you’re missing two major players up front,” LaFleur said of Bakhtiari and Jenkins. “But at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter who’s out there. They’ve got to get the job done and we’ve got to see improvement over the course of the next week and into the preseason games.”

While LaFleur said at midweek that the practice wouldn’t count any more in evaluations for players, he did say that seeing younger players in the stadium environment with a large crowd watching them was valuable.

“I do think that you’re changing the environment, and for a lot of their young guys it’s their first exposure, obviously in Lambeau, but (also) with our fans,” LaFleur explained. “And there’s, I think, a natural excitement and potentially an anxiety that goes along with that, knowing that there’s a lot of eyes on you.

“But at the end of the day, it’s still football and we’ve got to train our guys to have that mindset that you go out there and you compete just like you would any other day.”

Extra points

Starting safety Darnell Savage suffered a right hamstring injury during 1-on-1 drills, pulling up while in coverage on Amari Rodgers during his rep. Savage spent the remainder of practice on the sideline with ice on his leg but said afterward it was not a significant injury. “I just pulled up when I felt something. I don’t think it’s a concern,” Savage said. “I’ll be all right.” … Vernon Scott replaced Savage with the No. 1 defense and felt he held up well. “For me to show that I can step in and be that next-man-up in our defense, it’s a great opportunity,” Scott said. “I just really wanted to show that there’s no drop off with not having Darnell out there.” … LaFleur cut the final live tackling period out, in part because he felt some players were “dragging” toward the end. “Certainly we need to get in better shape,” LaFleur said. “We definitely are not where we need to be right now as far as overall conditioning.” … Outside linebacker Randy Ramsey, working his way back from a catastrophic ankle injury suffered in camp last year, didn’t take part in Family Night because of an ankle injury. The team didn’t disclose whether the injury is related to last year’s injury or is something different. … Also sitting out Family Night were running back Patrick Taylor (groin), wide receiver Malik Taylor (shoulder), offensive lineman Cole Schneider (ankle) and wide receiver Osirus Mitchell (quadriceps).

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