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Green Bay’s perceived depth becomes Reality in 22-11 victory vs. Patriots
By CHRIS HAVEL
The Green Bay Packers appear to have true depth at running back and defensive back.
It routinely flashed during training camp practices and it showed again in Thursday night’s 22-11 victory at New England in the preseason opener.
A year ago, the Packers’ running game amounted to Eddie Lacy, James Starks and the occasional quick toss to Randall Cobb.
Today, DuJuan Harris’ vacated roster spot is seeing a trio of challengers featuring Rajon Neal, Alonzo Harris and John Crockett.
They combined to roll up 82 yards in 21 carries against the Patriots, including Harris’ nifty 25-yard touchdown run.
Neal appeared to be the leader going into the preseason opener. He is the quickest, most agile of the group. He should be assignment sure because it’s his second year in the system.
Exactly how Neal might help on special teams remains to be seen. The kick return duties appear to belong to Ty Montgomery, which leaves the coverage teams.
Harris is the most powerful of the three. He consistently has bowled over inside linebackers early in camp. He also showed a burst during his 25-yard gallop to the end zone.
Whether he is assignment sure in terms of catching the football in the flat and on blitz pick-up remains to be seen.
Crockett, who missed much of early training camp with an ankle injury, ran like a back who intended to make up for lost time. Crockett ran with a sense of urgency that was impressive. He also showed good ball security and awareness. His short touchdown catch was especially welcome in terms of fitting into the Packers’ offense, particularly in the red zone.
Any of the three represents a significant upgrade from last year.
If things continue to play out as they have so far, my best guess is that Harris will win the No. 3 running back job if he takes care of his business. By that, I mean if he picks up blitzes, handles his assignment, doesn’t fumble and catches it cleanly.
If not, I believe Crockett will prevail.
In fact, I’m not so sure he won’t anyway. Crockett showed a determination, toughness and awareness that I liked. He’s a football player. The greatest obstacle is Alonzo Harris, who’s been running like Franco Harris in camp.
“I thought the runners ran well, they ran smart,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. “From a decision standpoint, there were definitely some reads you can coach off of and teach off of. They ran with body lean and did a good job of yards after contact. I thought the running back group had a good night.”
Meantime, the defensive backs carried over their strong practice showing into the Patriots’ preseason opener. Casey Hayward and Sam Shields looked like bookends. Both are rangy and supremely self-assured.
Furthermore, Shields and Hayward can cover slot receivers, which is a big bonus in terms of versatility.
Rookies Quinten Rollins and Ladarius Gunter also were strong.
Rollins is a player, pure and simple, who will have a role this season. He is going to contribute and has a chance to duplicate what Hayward did during his rookie season two years ago.
Gunter is a long, tough corner whose forte is bump-and-run but knows how to play the football in the air. His knock is a slow 40-yard dash time (4.6 or thereabouts) but he plays much faster.
Gunter has a real chance to make the roster, especially if he flashes on special teams.
Elsewhere, left tackle David Bakhtiari is dealing with what is described as a “minor” knee injury. Don Barclay replaced him with the first unit.
Also, on the defensive line, Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion and Josh Boyd all were sidelined for practice. That meant more work for Mike Pennel, and the 6-4, 332-pound tackle responded well. He worked next to B.J. Raji in Saturday’s practice at times with the first unit.
Pennel has a strong chance to make the 53-man roster.
Now, the Packers have a full week to prepare for Sunday’s noon kickoff at Pittsburgh. It should help them get in their travel routine, and also on a regular-season schedule with seven days to prepare.
Most promising, perhaps, was backup quarterback Scott Tolzien’s strong showing. He has improved consistently since he arrived two years ago, and is the Packers’ best backup going into a season in a decade.
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’s MVP Parties the evening before home games.