Preseason or not, the Packers’ 51-34 win over the Steelers on Thursday night was good football fun.
The home crowd gave Aaron Rodgers such an adoring ovation in his first game back at Lambeau Field since last Sept. 28 – two weeks before he suffered the broken collarbone that doomed Green Bay’s 2017 season – that the ever-cool quarterback said afterward he was moved to tears. The first-, second- and third-team offensive groups moved the ball and put up points, while the secondary got big plays and takeaways from defenders young and old. The beloved practice-field sensation once again looked like a bona fide NFL wide receiver.
The Packers improved to 2-0 in the preseason with a high-octane victory over a team expected to be among the AFC’s best – albeit one that didn’t play several starters. Green Bay accomplished its most important objectives: it watched No. 12 lead an impressive scoring drive, got some more clarity at a few important position groups and escaped without suffering any major injuries.
"The biggest thing, the goal tonight with Aaron in that first drive was to get the ball in the end zone," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "And I thought we did a nice job."
Said Rodgers of his warm welcome: "To be back at Lambeau was a thrill and the ovation touched me. I have to kind of wipe away some tears in my eyes."
There were plenty of takeaways from Thursday’s win over the Steelers; here are three of them.
1. Something I liked
Defensive playmaking. From the Super Bowl-winning Packers of 2010-11 through the team that choked away the NFC Championship Game in 2015, the best Green Bay squads have had great offenses and defenses that clung to the mantra of "bend, don’t break." They allowed lots of yards, but mitigated the damage by often being among the league leaders in turnovers forced.
Over the past three seasons, the Packers have ranked right about in the middle of the NFL in takeaways, putting more pressure on the offense to outscore opponents – and we saw last year how exposed that made the team when Rodgers got hurt. This offseason, Green Bay let a couple veterans leave, then drafted two talented cornerbacks with its first two picks – Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson – and signed some high-upside free agents, including Tramon Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson.
Against the Steelers, the team got big plays from a few of those new guys. Williams, a Packer from 2007-14 who, even at 35 years old is still among the most athletic players on the team, had a 25-yard interception return for a touchdown on the first play of the game; Jackson flashed his instinctive ability with a 22-yard pick-six early in the second half. Linebacker Reggie Gilbert, who spent the previous two seasons on Green Bay’s practice squad, was a pass-rushing force, with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 29 snaps, mostly against Pittsburgh’s No. 1 defense.
Rookie linebacker Oren Burks flashed his speed and seemed to be all over the field, with a game-high six tackles, including one for loss; third-year tackle Kenny Clark led a defensive line that got great penetration all night. The Packers desperately need playmaking ability on defense; on Thursday, they got some.
2. Something I learned
Jake Kumerow’s for real. Last week, the trio of rookie receivers the Packers drafted – J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown – got a lot of attention after a strong performance following a high-profile condemnation from Rodgers. Spared from that criticism, among the veteran wideouts, was third-year pro Jake Kumerow, who spent the previous two years on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad and just keeps catching everything thrown his way.
Kumerow has become immensely popular in Green Bay for his journey from Division 3 UW-Whitewater product to potential Packers receiver, but on Thursday night he once again showed he’s more than just a good training-camp story. The 6-foot-4 wideout had three catches for 114 yards, including an 82-yard touchdown, flashing his precise route-running, dependable hands and surprising speed. Over two preseason games, Kumerow leads the league with 190 receiving yards and has two receptions of at least 40 yards, tied for the most in the NFL. He’s also earned a very important supporter.
"From the first time he got here, it's never been too big for him," Rodgers said. "He continues to make plays, and that's how you make the squad – you ball out on game day and you do things on special teams when you're a fringe guy and you give yourself an opportunity, not just for this squad, but for any team watching (Kumerow) on film."
Kumerow sustained a shoulder injury – on Friday reported to be a sprained SC joint that’s expected to heal fairly quickly – but he still seems a good bet to make the final 53-man roster for the first time.
3. Something I’m looking forward to
Rodgers’ connection with Jimmy Graham. Based on production and his own past comments, it’s no secret: Rodgers is better when he has a dangerous pass-catching weapon at tight end. We saw it when Jermichael Finley decimated defenses up the middle, making big plays in the seam and opening up space for perimeter receivers. We saw it, briefly, with Jared Cook, who in 2016 stretched defenses in the middle of the field and down the sidelines with his athleticism. With Rodgers, the Packers’ offense is good no matter who’s out there; with a physically gifted receiving tight end, it’s almost unstoppable.
It was with that in mind this offseason that general manager Brian Gutekunst signed free agent Jimmy Graham, a 6-7 athletic freak who terrorized NFL defenses from 2011-14 and whom the Packers believe can regain his form, especially in the red zone.
On Thursday, fans got an exciting preview of what the Rodgers-to-Graham connection could look like – on Green Bay’s first offensive series. One play after drawing a Pittsburgh offside penalty to make it third-and-5, Rodgers evaded the pass rush, moved left and found Graham in the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown, prompting the towering tight end to do his first Lambeau Leap.
If Graham can stay healthy – he battled injuries two of his last three seasons in Seattle – and continue to build chemistry with Rodgers, they could develop into another devastating offensive duo. Meanwhile, the Packers’ other tight ends played well too: Lance Kendricks, Emanuel Byrd, Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan combined for eight catches for 98 yards and a score. McCarthy values having a deep stable of tight ends, and he appears to have that now.
The Packers’ next preseason game is on the road next Friday against the Oakland Raiders at 7:30 p.m.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.