Packers 24, Chiefs 3: Easy money

Packers 24, Chiefs 3: Easy money
Packers 24, Chiefs 3: Easy money

If it is indeed possible to give people their money’s worth in an NFL preseason finale, then the Green Bay Packers’ backups – the guys fighting for roster spots, the guys needing to prove themselves, the guys who were facing a nerve-wracking next 24 hours – did precisely that Thursday night.

From backup quarterback Graham Harrell’s virtuoso performance, to young wide receivers Tori Gurley and Jarrett Boykin stating their cases, to running back Alex Green proving he is nearing 100 percent after reconstructive knee surgery, to cornerback Sam Shields continuing to climb out of his deep early-camp hole, to soon-to-be-suspended defenders Mike Neal and Erik Walden bidding an impressive adieu – the Packers’ 24-3 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs was anything but meaningless to them.

And while the announced crowd of 67,999 still probably deserved free hot dogs and soda pops – even if they got their ducats for below face value – for their loyalty, the Packers (2-2) reserves certainly outclassed the Chiefs (1-3) and helped end what had been a disconcerting exhibition season with back-to-back wins.

“You talk about, ‘What did you want to see out of your players?’ I wanted to see those statements,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who’s now 14-14 in seven exhibition seasons in Green Bay. “There were statements throughout that game tonight. And that’s impressive.”

Most impressive was Harrell, who endured non-stop criticism as he struggled mightily through the first three games with the rag-tag backup units. Thursday night, however, was transformational. Given solid protection and afforded good receiver play, he was literally perfect – achieving the maximum passer rating of 158.3 by completing 13 of 15 passes for 223 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His two incompletions were an intentional throw-away after being flushed from the pocket, and a deep ball down the left sideline that Gurley should have caught.

“We did a better job of being more consistent tonight than we have all preseason, and it looked a lot better,” said Harrell, who’d entered the game having completed only 32 of 63 passes for 261 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 53.7. “I thought the guys around me did a great job. We moved the ball, we scored points, and it was a lot of fun.

“Like I’ve said all preseason, the goal is to go out there and perform every day and just try to continue to improve and get better. Whether it’s game or practice, no matter what’s going on, the goal is to get better and improve. I think we did that tonight. We had showed flashes, I think, in the other preseason games. We just hadn’t put it all together and hadn’t been consistent.”

As for the guys who’ll actually be playing in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, their nights were over early. Starter Aaron Rodgers actually played two series – both of which went three-and-out. (The first was almost one-and-out, but tight end Jermichael Finley recovered Cedric Benson’s first-play fumble.) That left the No. 1 offense with 14 possessions this preseason, which resulted in three touchdowns, one field goal, four punts, two interceptions, two fumbles, and two failed fourth-down plays.

It marked the No. 1 unit’s least productive preseason in Rodgers’ five years as the starter, especially paling in comparison to 2010 (12 possessions, seven touchdowns) and 2009 (13 possessions, nine touchdowns, one field goal).

Nevertheless, the offense that led the NFL last season and put up the second-most points in NFL history did not seem the least bit worried about it.

“We feel good. We put a lot of time and work in this training camp, and we’re ready to roll,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “We look forward to next week, and we’ll get started on it on Monday. We’re looking forward to getting the games going.

“You want to come out of it healthy, and I think for the most part we did – at least on offense. I know on defense we obviously lost (inside linebacker Desmond) Bishop, but we’re healthy, we got a few new guys acclimated. A few guys stepped up and played really well tonight. It’ll be interesting to see who’ll be on the team come Monday, and we’ve got to be ready to roll – right away.”

The No. 1 defense, meanwhile, struggled to stop the run-oriented Chiefs early on, as coach Romeo Crennel ordered nine consecutive runs to open the game – all of which were for naught when kicker Ryan Succop was short from 54 yards out. The Chiefs’ next drive went 75 yards in 12 plays – aided by a 15-yard Peyton Hillis run and 11- and 18-yard completions by No. 2 quarterback Brady Quinn – before the hodgepodge of starters and backups stiffened again to limit Kansas City to a 26-yard Succop field goal.

“I think the 1s we’re ready to play. Obviously, I wasn’t very pleased with the way the game started,” McCarthy said. “I thought they (the Chiefs) were moving a little quicker than we were. With that, handling the ball, we had the five penalties in the first half. I really thought we cleaned it up as the game went on and it’s about scoring points and holding them out of the end zone. I thought our team did a very good job of that.”

From there, it was Harrell’s show. Finley made a terrific leaping grab on third-and-12 to pick up 27 yards and keep Harrell’s first series going, and on the next play, he took a shot to Gurley on a play-action deep ball and connected for 54 yards. Two plays later, Green cruised in off left tackle for a 2-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead.

“All preseason, if/when we got our first first down, we put together some good drives. And that’s what (Finley’s catch) did – we got that first first down, and we got rolling,” Harrell said. “Every drive after that, we just kept it going. We got some momentum. The offense’s goal is always to move the ball and score points. It didn’t change from last week to this week, we just went out there and executed a little better and more consistently. And good things happened.”

After Kansas City went three-and-out, Harrell put together an even more impressive second possession, directing a 10-play, 93-yard march that ended in Green’s second touchdown, on a 17-yard catch and run. Along the way, Harrell found Gurley for 15 yards, hit Boykin (16 yards) and Borel (17 yards) on back-to-back plays and was in total command against the Chiefs’ defensive reserves.

“I think we made a case,” Gurley said of the young wide receivers, who are trying to force their way onto the 53-man roster despite a deep and proven receiving corps. “Right now, we have five of the best receivers in the NFL. There’s not going to be many balls around. But … eventually when a ball does come to you, you have to catch it.”

Green, meanwhile, reminded folks why the coaching staff is so excited about him, despite Benson’s arrival. While his rushing numbers were poor (six carries, 8 yards), he looked explosive on the touchdown catch and inched closer to defining his role in the weapon-filled offense.

“Not yet. Not yet. But I’m very close to 100 percent,” Green said. “I still have a ways to go, my rehab’s still pretty early, but I’m close enough to where I feel pretty comfortable. I try to do the best that I can in every aspect. Just being an all-around running back, I have a long way to go to reach that point. I think tonight was a great step for me to reach that goal.”

On defense, three players who faced their share of adversity responded. Shields, who was demoted from No. 3 cornerback at the end of last season and has apparently lost out to Jarrett Bush for the right to replace cornerback-turned-safety Charles Woodson at the corner spot opposite Tramon Williams, had an interception for the second straight week and made a compelling argument to be the dime cornerback.

Meanwhile, Neal and Walden went out with bangs. Their suspensions begin after the final roster cuts are made – the deadline for the Packers to make their 22 required moves is 8 p.m. Wisconsin time – but both players made good final impressions. Walden, who is suspended for one game for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy after a domestic incident with his girlfriend last November, finished with two tackles, a sack and a quarterback hit. Neal, who is suspended four games for violating the league policy against performance-enhancing drugs, applied excellent pressure and set up a sack that was credited to Mike Daniels.

Now comes the hard part. McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson must trim the roster down to the 53-man limit, and as they say ad nauseam, that’s not easy. But at least they enter the process with players having put their best feet forward on the final exam.

“I thought it was a good finish to the preseason tonight. In particular the last two weeks, the football team, I felt that we’ve had growth,” McCarthy said. “That was our goal as a football team, was to take another step and more particularly play a lot better at home than we did the last time we were here.

“Individually, I thought there were a number of fine performances. We need to get to the tape, evaluation that. Obviously the time ahead is a difficult task for our personnel and coaching staffs to sort through this and make the right decisions for the Green Bay Packers. There’s also a personal side to this that I don’t think any of us are really looking forward to. But with that, it’s about picking the team, trying to make the right decisions. The coaching staff will actually turn toward San Francisco and start our preparation for the 49ers.

“You’re talking about a talented group of people that came together, worked their butts off, had a tough training camp, an adverse training camp because of injuries, and started to grow at the right time. It’s a great lesson that we can point back to. Hopefully when the playoffs do come around, if we’re blessed to be in it, we can look back at the preseason and we played the best football when it counted.” 

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