shepherd photo 8-31

Packers wide receiver Darrius Shepherd runs during training camp in Green Bay.

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GREEN BAY — They were not only in full pads, but full uniform — offense in the home greens, defense in the road whites. There were actual officials — albeit only four of them, and none from the NFL. The stadium scoreboard showed replays — though because it was an intrasquad scrimmage, highlights for one side of the ball were lowlights for the other. They even brought in public-address announcer Bill Jartz to bellow down-and-distance — though to a non-existent Lambeau Field crowd.

Yes, the Green Bay Packers did their best to conjure up a reasonable facsimile to a normal preseason game Sunday. They even kicked the festivities off at noon — precisely two weeks from their regular-season opener against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis — and ran roughly 100 snaps of 11-on-11 plays, albeit without full-on tackling.

“To me, it really did feel like a game today,” third-year defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster said during a Zoom video call with reporters. “And I feel like this is the best way we’re going to get prepared.”

Not that the Packers had much of a choice, with COVID-19 having led to the cancellation of all preseason games across the league. The Packers also had invited the Cleveland Browns to town for joint practices pre-pandemic, but those sessions also were wiped out, leaving the team — and the rest of the NFL — with essentially three weeks of actual practice before getting ready for the games to count.

In addition, Sunday’s session was the Packers’ final camp-style practice, as coach Matt LaFleur said the team will transition into a regular-season schedule with in-season style practices Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before Saturday’s final roster cuts take the roster from 80 to 53 players.

“I think the guys got good work in,” LaFleur said. “And they’ve got to realize that two weeks from today, we’re going to be playing our first game. So they’ve got to stack consistent practices on top of each other.”

While the practice was hardly the end-all, be-all of evaluation, here are a few noteworthy observations from the 2-hour, 14-minute practice, which was the longest of camp:

No tackling

Other than the post-practice limited scrimmaging the Packers did with young players a few times, the Packers will go into the season without having actually done any tackling. LaFleur said the coaches discussed doing some Sunday but ultimately decided against it.

“We want to have all our horses for the race coming in two weeks. We’ve got to make sure that we’re healthy because I know this: We’re going to be at our best when we’ve got all our guys out there,” LaFleur said. “It was something that we talked about today, even during that practice, whether or not with some of the younger guys if we were going to give them another live reps. But some of the circumstances dictated us going in a different direction there right at the end.”

Right tackle battle

LaFleur said last week the competition for the starting right tackle job between Billy Turner, who started all 18 games at right guard last year, and Rick Wagner, who was signed to replace departed free agent Bryan Bulaga, could go all the way up to the opener. That battle apparently will continue as the duo split snaps at the spot Sunday as Wagner tries to make up for time lost to an elbow injury

“We sometimes ask the linemen to do some different things than they’ve done at previous teams,” LaFleur acknowledged. “So it’s just a matter of (Wagner) learning our different fundamentals and our different techniques in how we do things.”

Running in place?

While hard to tell with no live tackling, the offense seemed to have real success on the ground. While that’s great news for a team that wants to run the ball more, it wasn’t so wonderful for a defense that was last seen hemorrhaging 285 rushing yards in the NFC Championship Game.

“That’s a double-edged sword,” LaFleur said. “It’s great because it did seem like there were some holes in the area, (but) that’s something we’ve got to make sure we don’t allow to have happen defensively.”

Bring the noise

As they had during a previous practice inside Lambeau, the Packers piped in artificial crowd noise. While LaFleur said he still hasn’t gotten final word from the league about how loud the noise will be for games, he certainly noticed it Sunday.

“We went out there today with a set decibel level that we had the other day in practice and it sounded like twice as loud as the other day, so we had to taper it back a little bit,” said LaFleur, adding there also were some communication problems with the sideline headsets and walkie-talkies the coaches used. “That’s something we’re going to have to work through and might have to come back out here at Lambeau just to get a real feel for exactly how it’s going to sound.”

Feeling the Love

Rookie quarterback Jordan Love’s scrimmage started out shaky, with several early throws sailing on him. But he seemed to settle in and finished (unofficially) 8 of 14 for 98 yards and a touchdown, with his best throw being a third-and-12 downfield throw to Darrius Shepherd for 34 yards near the end of practice.

“It felt like it was probably his best day up to this point, just making some key throws downfield,” LaFleur said. “I think he’s consistently getting better and better and better. That tends to happen with these guys when you have more a game plan emphasis going into it. You kind of shrink the playbook down for him. Hopefully, he wasn’t thinking as much out there, and I think that translated into a better performance.”

In the running

Another rookie, halfback AJ Dillon, again got plenty of work with the 1s behind Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, and LaFleur indicated afterward he will employ a three-headed backfield.

“He’d better be ready. We feel really confident with our running back corps as a whole unit, and I think you’re going to see all those guys in the mix,” LaFleur said. “They all bring a little something different to the table. I think AJ’s showing improvement. Just like any young back, there is a lot to learn in this offseason in terms of just whether it’s in the pass game and pass protection. Certainly, he has some great skills as a runner, and he’s got to have the mindset that he better be ready to roll.“

Making his case

Shepherd, who made the team as an undrafted free agent last year before being demoted to the practice squad after a poor showing against Detroit in Week 6, had perhaps the best day of any wideout, catching a 20-yard touchdown pass from Tim Boyle, picking up a third-and-6 with a 7-yard catch from Love and then reeling in that seam route for 34 yards from Love.

“It’s going to be our only opportunity to play as a team in a preseason setting before we go to Minnesota. So I think guys are definitely amped up and locked in,” Shepherd said. “It was definitely weird with no fans being there, but that’s going to be what we get used to these first (few) weeks. So we’ll see how it goes, but I think guys were locked in and treated it like a game-type atmosphere today.”


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This article originally ran on madison.com.

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