Hangin’ With Havel

Hangin’ with Havel

For Monday August 15th

Chris Havel’s sports columns appear during the week on The FAN’s website. The columns are brought to you by these fine advertisers (click on hyperlink to go to their website/Facebook)

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Packers get healthier;

‘Grandpa’ Pujols hits 2 HRs to KO Brewers

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay fans received great news Sunday when head coach Matt LaFleur announced that Elgton Jenkins, Robert Tonyan and Christian Watson were activated off the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list.

It followed a solid showing by the Packers in Friday night’s preseason opener at San Francisco, which resulted in a 28-21 loss but showcased the talents of more than a dozen players who are battling for roster spots.

The weekend’s big news is the return of Jenkins, Tonyan and Watson.

Jenkins and Tonyan are coming back from ACL tears, while Watson underwent a scope on his right knee a few weeks ago.

“It’s just like the next step in the process,” LaFleur said. “It’s not like they’re going to be out there in team drills. But they’ll do some individual (work) and with them being back, now it allows you to do some walkthroughs, which is going to be obviously very beneficial for, especially for a guy who hasn’t played in the NFL like Christian. So it’ll be great to get ‘em out there for some of the walkthroughs.”

It doesn’t guarantee that they will play in Green Bay’s Sept. 11 season opener at Minnesota, but it does pave the way for the possibility.

Jenkins, a talented and versatile player, could start at left or right tackle when he’s ready to roll. Tonyan is the team’s top pass-catching tight end. Watson, a talented receiver and the 34th overall pick in April, is another piece in the puzzle that is figuring out how to replace All-Pro Davante Adams.

While some teams are dealing with mounting injuries in training camp, the Packers are getting healthier. Safety Dallin Leavitt incurred what’s described as a “serious” shoulder injury Friday night, but no other significant injuries were reported.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur announced the PUP list activations during his pre-practice news conference Sunday.

“It’s just like the next step in the process,” LaFleur said. “It’s not like they’re going to be out there in team drills. But they’ll do some individual (work) and with them being back, now it allows you to do some walkthroughs, which is going to be obviously very beneficial for, especially for a guy who hasn’t played in the NFL like Christian. So it’ll be great to get ‘em out there for some of the walkthroughs.”

LaFleur didn’t commit to playing Jenkins at a particular position.

“There’s not too many guys that are, No. 1, as talented as he is, but also as versatile as he is,” LaFleur said. “We can put him anywhere on that line. Shoot, we could probably put him at tight end. Maybe we will, I don’t know. You guys want to write a story about that?”

Jenkins’ stance and footwork during his individual work on Sunday, according to ESPN, suggests he’ll line up at right tackle. That makes sense, especially if All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari is activated off the PUP list in time to play in the regular-season opener.

If Bakhtiari remains on the PUP list to start the season he will have to miss at least the first four games. Jenkins seems the likely starter at left tackle if that’s the case.

With Jenkins at right tackle, the Packers’ offensive line would be Yosh Nijman at left tackle, Jon Runyan at left guard, Josh Myers at center and either Royce Newman, Jake Hanson or Zach Tom at right guard.

The Packers still have three players on the PUP list: Bakhtiari, veteran kicker Mason Crosby and running back Kylin Hill.

Also Sunday, rookie Kingsley Enagbare picked up where he left off Friday night, when he notched a sack and three pressures against the 49ers. Enagbare, the team’s fifth-round pick, destroyed right tackle Royce Newman in the two-minute drill.

Enagbare, by his own count, had three sacks.

“The last couple practices, I feel like I’ve been coming along and I’ve been able to stack a couple good days,” he told reporters. “It’s trying to stack each day and having a focus each day, whether it’s my hands, my get-off, things like that. Just have a focus each day and try to attack that so, slowly but surely, getting better each day.”

Enagbare could be the Packers’ No. 4 edge rusher behind starters Rashan Gary and Preston Smith, and Jonathan Garvin, who appears to be the No. 3 edge right now.

The Packers held a closed-to-the-public walkthrough Monday. They host the New Orleans Saints for joint practices Tuesday and Wednesday beginning at 10:30 a.m. at Ray Nitschke Field. They will be the final public practices of camp.

** Ageless Albert Pujols crushes Brewers in Sunday’s series finale

The Brewers dropped two of three at St. Louis during the weekend to find themselves 1 ½ games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central standings.

The Cardinals’ ageless wonder, Albert Pujols, did most of the damage in Milwaukee’s 6-3 loss in Sunday’s rubber match. Pujols’ 688th career home run cut the Brewers’ lead to 2-1 in the second inning.

He continued the rampage with a three-run shot in the eighth to seal the win. It was the 42-year-old Pujols’ 689th career home run. He currently is fifth on Major League Baseball’s all-time home run list, trailing only Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Alex Rodriguez (696).

“I’m the grandpa in this clubhouse,” he said after the game. “I’m having a great time. I’ve been putting some good swings all year. Sometimes, you’re going to get breaks. Sometimes you are not.”

Pujols has 10 home runs and 30 RBI in what he said will be his final season.

Meantime, the Brewers’ hitters couldn’t solve Cardinals right-hander Miles Mikolas (9-9), who allowed two runs on four hits in eight innings. He struck out six and didn’t walk a batter.

Mikolas’ performance overshadowed a decent start by Brewers’ left-hander Aaron Ashby, who allowed two runs on three hits in six innings. Ashby struck out five and walked two.

Hunter Renfroe’s two-run home run in the second gave Milwaukee a quick 2-0 lead. It was Renfroe’s 20th bomb of the season.

Rowdy Tellez blasted his 24th home run in the ninth but it wasn’t enough.

Love’s play uneven in

Packers’ loss to 49ers

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jordan Love needs to build on the positives and learn from the negatives following the third-year quarterback’s uneven play in Green Bay’s 28-21 loss to the 49ers in Friday night’s preseason opener at Santa Clara, Calif.

Love played with poise and confidence while flashing his first-round arm talent on a handful of throws. But the good was mitigated by two poor decisions on throws that were deflected by his receivers and resulted in interceptions.

The Packers’ backup to Aaron Rodgers alternated between sharp and shaky during his 36 snaps. He threw for two touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 13 of 24 for 176 yards and a pedestrian 66 passer rating.

Love’s touchdown throws were nicely delivered 33-yard lasers to rookie receivers Romeo Doubs and Danny Davis. He also commanded the huddle, got them in and out crisply and was accurate on his intermediate throws and check-downs.

His reads and decision-making on several throws was disappointing, though.

Two of his three interceptions were the result of passes that were deflected by his receivers. The third was an ill-advised throw to Amari Rodgers over the middle. He wasn’t perfect, to be sure.

Love seemed to take it in stride.

“The ball wasn’t bouncing our way tonight,” Love said. “A couple misfortunate plays. I think for everybody it could have been a better night. The ball bounced weird ways and they capitalized on those plays. Obviously no one wants that to happen and it sucks when it does. It’s something to learn from.”

Love’s first pick came on a pass that sailed through the hands of Tyler Davis, who is battling to make the team as the fourth tight end. Davis has to make that catch if he wants to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

The second pick was high and behind Doubs, who contorted his body and nearly made a terrific play before having the football wrestled away by the defender. It should serve as a great teaching moment for Doubs: Finish the play.

The third pick had almost no chance to be completed and shouldn’t have been thrown. Amari Rodgers bowed his route, which allowed cornerback Samuel Womack to step in front for an easy interception.

“Certainly, he’s going to want a couple of the throws back and certainly some of the reads,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “But it’s never perfect for a quarterback. But I thought, by and large, just watching the things like how the operation was, it was a smooth operation.”

LaFleur didn’t entirely absolve Love for throwing the interceptions, but he acknowledged it wasn’t all the former Utah State quarterback’s fault.

“I think two of those you can totally take off him,” LaFleur told reporters. “The third one, we had two busted routes because the ball really shouldn’t have gone there on that play (to Rodgers). He had nowhere else to go with the football, and he forced it in there and the defender made a good play. We’ve just got to clean up everything around him. We say it all the time about quarterbacks, they’re going to get too much credit when we do well and they’re going to get a lot of the blame when we don’t, and that’s just the reality of playing that position in this league.”

Love will have plenty of opportunities to make the necessary corrections. He is likely to receive plenty of reps during the Packers-Saints joint practices, as well as the Saints’ and Chiefs’ preseason games.

Here are other key takeaways from Week 1 of the preseason:

** Amari Rodgers is a much sleeker, more explosive player than a year ago. The third-round pick dropped 10 pounds from his 5-foot-9 frame and appears quicker at 202 pounds.

Rodgers had a nifty 22-yard touchdown catch on a Danny Etling pass in the second half. He also made a terrific read on an incredibly well-blocked kick return and raced 50 yards before being forced out-of-bounds.

On the touchdown catch, Rodgers said: “I just had a flat route and the nickel blitzed off me, so I knew I had a chance of getting the ball. I saw that and I got my eyes around quick and made the first man miss. The second had a good angle on me. I was thinking about cutting back but I saw his angle so I gave him a little hesitation to see if I could stop his speed and it worked.”

Then what?

“I just reached for the pylon,” he said with a smile.

On the kickoff return, Rodgers followed his blocking, made one would-be tackler whiff and then kicked it into high gear.

“It was well-blocked and I think the hardest hit came when he got to the sideline and Rashan Gary knocked him on his butt,” LaFleur said.

** The Packers’ offensive line held up against the 49ers’ defensive starters.

Love wasn’t sacked and had a clean pocket to work in. Etling took one sack.

The Packers finished with 299 yards passing on 19 of 32 for three touchdowns. Perhaps even more impressive was a Packers’ running attack that produced 141 yards on 34 carries (4.1 average) and six rushing first downs.

“I thought our offensive line did a much better job,” LaFleur said. “I thought they held up really nicely throughout the course of the game. It wasn’t perfect. There were a couple runs that I think we could’ve blocked up a little bit better. But by and large I thought they did a nice job.

“I was really happy with the effort that the guys gave really in every phase. I thought guys were competing, playing with great urgency, playing with great effort, playing together. Nobody was making up their own stuff out there which tends to happen sometimes when you get your first exposure in an NFL football game, a preseason game, and so by and large the guys did a nice job.”

** There’s keen competition to be the sixth/seventh receiver.

Doubs had three catches for 45 yards on seven targets. He had two drops, which he’ll learn from, but overall he ran really good routes and showed he belongs.

Samori Toure is my longshot to make the 53-man roster. Toure had three catches for 42 yards on four targets. His speed translates on the field. After Toure’s NFL debut it’s easier to see why he had a knack for getting behind defenders. If the Packers choose to have Christian Watson on the PUP list to start the season – and I think it would be a disservice to him if they didn’t – Toure has a legit shot.

Juwan Winfree also had a nice game with three catches (three targets) for 27 yards. Then there is ex-Badgers receiver Danny Davis, who caught two passes for 45 yards, including the 33-yard touchdown grab.

The receivers will be Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Randall Cobb, Amari Rodgers, Romeo Doubs and either Toure, Winfree or Davis in Week 1.

** The third running back job is up for grabs.

Patrick Taylor, Dexter Williams, B.J. Baylor and Tyler Goodson are battling for one roster spot behind Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. This is perhaps the keenest competition on the roster.

Taylor and Williams have been in the system for a while now, while Baylor and Goodson flashed more quickness and better hands out of the backfield.

The turning point may be which is most capable on special teams, although the Packers have invested in Keisean Nixon and Dallin Leavitt – a pair of defensive backs – to shore up the teams’ play.

Right now, I’d put Taylor slightly ahead of Goodson, with Baylor and Williams as the longshots.

** The defense was stout against the run.

Green Bay held the 49ers to just 57 yards rushing on 18 carries (a 3.2 average) through the first three quarters. The 49ers then ran 11 times for 63 yards in the fourth quarter to skew the numbers a bit.

The Packers racked up three sacks and had decent pressure most of the night.

The problem was the two big pass plays that went for touchdowns. Danny Gray hauled in a 76-yard bomb behind Leavitt and Ray-Ray McCloud scored on a 39-yard grab when Rico Gafford slipped and fell.

“On one of them, we went up and challenged them, and the receiver made a nice move off the line of scrimmage, similar to the one Romeo scored his touchdown on,” Lafleur said. “The other one Rico (Gafford) slipped on the back end.”

“We gave up two big-time plays and had three turnovers on offense. That was ultimately the difference in the game.”

Love to start Packers’

preseason game at SF

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – There’s an old adage that claims you only get one chance to make a good first impression.

That’s not entirely true.

Jordan Love will start at quarterback in the Packers’ preseason opener against San Francisco on Friday night in San Jose, Calif. It is hardly the third-year signal caller’s first appearance in front of fans, but it may be the most important to date, and it could begin to ease the angst over Aaron Rodgers’ longevity.

What’s past is past, and what matters most is how Love plays against the 49ers. He’ll also get the majority of reps against the Saints and Chiefs this preseason. Packers head coach Matt LaFleur has ruled Rodgers out for Friday night’s game, but stopped short of declaring that he won’t play at all this preseason.

Meantime, Love has been fairly impressive through 10 training camp practices.

The 23-year-old is more decisive in terms of when and where to throw the football. He also has displayed better footwork and rhythm, which has led to increased velocity, improved accuracy and greater consistency.

Perhaps Love’s signature play was a 54-yard strike to Samori Toure with defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt bearing down on him. Wyatt is certain he would’ve recorded a sack, but that doesn’t diminish Love’s coolness under pressure during Friday’s Family Night Scrimmage.

“I feel like I’ve just got more rhythm in my drops, keeping that same tempo, just being in rhythm,” Love told reporters. “When I first got here, I might have been rushing my drops a little too much, trying to go too fast. My brain’s just trying to process information quickly so it’s speeding my feet up. But I’m more relaxed in the pocket, more relaxed with my decision-making and just kind of slowing the game down I think has slowed my feet down. I definitely think my feet, so far through camp, have been a lot better than what they were the last two years.”

Love has taken 131 snaps in the regular season.

The 6-foot-4, 219-pounder has played in six games, with the lone start coming in a 13-7 loss at Kansas City last season. Love is 36 of 62 (58.1 percent) for 411 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He has been sacked three times and his passer rating is a modest 68.7.

Love acknowledged delivering passes under pressure is a work in progress.

“It’s something I’ve got to improve on,” he said. “Going back to the Lions game last year at the end, the two-minute drive, I had a throw with a guy in my face that I missed and it could have been a big play. That’s something that I looked at during the offseason and thinking about how I have to get better at being able to stay in the pocket and take those hits and still be able to make those throws.”

Love credited quarterbacks coach Tom Clements with his improved footwork. Clements, who is in his second go-round with Green Bay, has been praised by Rodgers for his ability to coach him up as a young player.

Now, Clements is working to do the same with Love.

LaFleur likes what he’s seeing in camp.

“I think (Love) is much more in rhythm, I think there’s much more decisiveness,” LaFleur said Sunday. “I think you see it in his footwork. He’s not getting what I call ‘stuck’ at the top of the drop where both feet are hitting at the same time and he’s just kind of sitting there. It just looks more rhythmical, just looks more fluid, and I think it’s translated in his play.

“I think he’s definitely thrown the ball pretty accurately and has made pretty good decisions. You’ve got to give Jordan a lot of credit for taking the drill work to team and, hopefully, we can take the practice to the games.”

Love’s play is going to be scrutinized throughout camp and the preseason.

The Packers have to determine if the 26th pick in the 2020 NFL draft is capable of leading the team whenever Rodgers decides to retire.

The next step in the process occurs Friday night.

LaFleur added that Rodgers may play in the preseason finale against the Chiefs. He said he wasn’t concerned about the state of the offensive line with David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins still rehabbing from injuries.

Yosh Nijman is working at left tackle while Royce Newman and Zach Tom split time at right tackle. LaFleur said he absolutely wouldn’t hesitate to play Rodgers behind those tackles.

“I think absolutely we would,” LaFleur said. “We still have confidence in those guys. Those guys are going to have to play. We’d just be very particular about what plays we’re calling. We’re not going to have open edges and seven-step drops that take a long time to develop. We’d just be super-intentional about what we call, which we are in every instance usually, anyway.”

NOTEBOOK

** Vernon Scott worked with the No. 1 defense after Darnell Savage pulled a hamstring in Friday night’s scrimmage.

Scott, a third-year pro, has been derailed by injuries and a lack of opportunities early in his career. However, the Packers must like something about Scott to keep him around this long.

Scott worked with the No. 1 defense ahead of free-agent acquisition Shawn Davis.

** Rasul Douglas, Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes are all getting work as the slot cornerback. Douglas has taken the lion’s share of snaps there, but Alexander and Stokes have been more work there of late.

The thinking is that it makes the cornerback trio more versatile, covers the defense in case of injury, and allows the Packers to go with the best game-specific matchups.

** Samori Toure capped an impressive week with the 54-yard TD grab from Love. Toure, a 4.35 40-yard dash speedster, brings a valuable dimension to the offense. He has the speed and the knack for being able to get behind defenders.

In Green Bay’s play-action happy attack a legit deep threat is vital. The Packers’ offense struggled mightily when Marquez Valdes-Scantling wasn’t available last season. Frankly, the Packers had no other options in terms of stretching the field.

With Toure in house – and Christian Watson still recovering from knee surgery – it isn’t a stretch to see the rookie from Nebraska crack the Packers’ 53-man roster.

** My most impressive player so far?

That’s Zach Tom, the 6-4, 308-pound lineman from Wake Forest. Tom combines the agility of a tight end with really good feet and the power of a lineman.

The Packers wouldn’t be working Tom at right tackle if they didn’t think he could handle it. My best guess is that he starts at right tackle in Week 1 if neither Elgton Jenkins nor David Bakhtiari is available.

If one or the other is able to go at Minnesota, I’m banking on Tom to be the Packers’ starting right guard ahead of Newman.

Brewers’ season goes

kaput in Pittsburgh

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Brewers traded away more than Josh Hader. They sent any chance to reach the postseason packing in the process.

The Brewers acquired multiple players in a trade that sent the All-Star closer to San Diego before the Tuesday deadline. Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said the move was best for the organization long-term and that it didn’t mean the Brewers were waving the white flag on this season.

The Pirates’ three-game sweep of the Brewers suggests otherwise.

Milwaukee (57-48) dropped into a first-place tie with St. Louis (57-48) atop the NL Central. The Brewers’ 5-4 loss on Thursday – their fourth straight – coincided with the Cardinals’ doubleheader sweep of the Cubs.

St. Louis’ fourth straight win was led by newly acquired pitcher Jose Quintana, who started the nightcap and allowed just one run while striking out seven in six strong innings.

Meantime, the Brewers are listing badly, and to the port side no less.

The Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds was a one-man wrecking crew in the series.

Reynolds hit a ground-rule double to drive in the tying run Thursday, and then scored the winning run on Matt Bush’s wild pitch with the bases loaded and the score tied at 4-4.

Reynolds’ walk-off home run against Devin Williams lifted the Pirates to an 8-7 win Wednesday night.

Clearly, the Brewers missed Hader during the series. They lost each of the three games after the Pirates rallied from multi-run deficits.

Now, the Brewers must return home and try to pick up the pieces.

They have a three-game weekend series with Cincinnati at American Family Field. If the Brewers intend to compete for a playoff berth they have got to nip their current four-game losing streak beginning Friday night.

I wasn’t thrilled with trading Hader but I understood it as a business decision. What disappointed me is the way the organization handled it. They could’ve gone one of two ways:

** Acknowledge Hader’s greatness and what he meant to the organization, and follow it up with naming Devin Williams the closer going forward. It would have given Hader the respect he earned, and it would have kept Williams from the embarrassment of having to be asked, “Why aren’t you the closer?”

** Or they could’ve downplayed it by saying it’s difficult to trade “good” players but they did what’s best long-term while still competing for the playoffs.

They chose Door #2 which was a bad idea.

Williams was unscored upon in 30 straight appearances and should’ve been given the closer role. He earned it. Instead, manager Craig Counsell twisted in the wind and blathered nonsense about “situational roles” and doing it “by committee.”

It seemed Counsell wasn’t at all keen on the trade, either.

The Brewers were the only NL contender who got worse at the trade deadline. The fact that the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Giants and Phillies all got better compounds it.

Stearns has been a strong presence as the team’s president of baseball operations. In this instance, though, the fact that he was uncomfortable acknowledging Hader’s contributions and greatness made him sound shallow.

He didn’t fool anybody. Not the fans. Not the players in the clubhouse. He was kidding himself, too, if he was to be honest.

The Brewers had a lot invested in this season. They acquired Hunter Renfroe and promoted Jonathan Davis and were getting Freddy Peralta back off the IL with Adrian Houser on that same path.

In the good old days, like a week ago, the Brewers were playing 7-inning games. It was whichever top-flight starter they trotted out with Williams and Hader to finish.

Now it’s a cluster.

If the Brewers manage to get it together and make the postseason that would be great. It would mean their bats finally heated up and the defense tightened up. It also would mean they were able to overcome the loss of Hader.

Here’s the sad part. If indeed the Brewers reach the postseason they’d have had a puncher’s chance with Hader. Now, even if they find their way in, their chances of winning a three-game series without him seem mighty slim.

Here’s the bright side: The Packers’ Family Night Scrimmage is tonight, with the first of three preseason games just a week away.

As for the Brewers’ playoff chances I say, “Maybe next year.”

Brewers trade Hader;

Packers’ D delivering

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Brewers did the unthinkable. They traded former Brewers pitcher Jerry Augustine’s idol. They traded Josh Hader.

It is another not-so-gentle reminder that baseball can be a brutal business.

It was the correct move strategically, but it was a sad farewell nonetheless.

Augustine, a regular contributor on Sports Line, pitched 11 seasons in Milwaukee. He and Mike Caldwell – a pair of left-handers – were the “Yankee Killers” back in the mid- to late-1970s. “Augie” aka the Pride of Kewaunee didn’t believe the Brewers would trade Hader until after the 2022 season.

It didn’t go down that way.

Milwaukee’s president of baseball operations, David Stearns, elected to pull the trigger and send Hader, who is baseball’s pre-eminent closer, to San Diego. In exchange, the Brewers received left-handed reliever Taylor Rodgers, left-handed pitching prospect Robert Gasser, right-hander Dinelson Lamet and outfielder Esteury Ruiz.

Rodgers has 28 saves this season, but also totes around a hefty 4.00-plus ERA. He has been struggling the past two months, and the Brewers are hoping a change of scenery will do him good. He’s also only a rest-of-this-season rental.

Ruiz, a slight but powerful 6-0, 169, is a strong defensive outfielder who hits for average .344 in Triple A plus more power (50 home runs in 2 ½ seasons) than one might suspect. The Brewers assigned Ruiz to Triple-A Nashville and Gasser to Double-A Biloxi.

Gasser is a left-handed strikeout pitcher who had 115 Ks to 28 walks in 90 1/3 innings at High A, where the second-round pick in 2021 is currently pitching.

Lamet, 30, is an intriguing story. He made 12 starts in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. He has been injured for much of the time since then and is only now getting healthy.

Hader, 28, had sustained back-to-back awful outings that shot his ERA to an unthinkable 4.24. However, Hader is healthy and his stuff is as electric as ever. I will be shocked if he doesn’t return to form with the Padres.

Hader said he understood the move but that didn’t make it any easier to pack.

“Thank you for the support throughout my career,” Hader said. “Y’all have been great to me. The people, the energy, the love! There will always be a special place in my heart for MKE.”

Some Brewers fans were puzzled by the move.

Milwaukee (57-46) holds a three-game lead over St. Louis in the NL Central. The Padres (58-46) trail the Dodgers by 12 games in the NL West, although they hold a two-game lead over Philadelphia for the second wild-card slot.

Why are the Brewers sellers and the Padres buyers at the trade deadline?

The Brewers don’t view the Hader trade as waving the white flag.

“We felt this was the right time, and it was only a player of that caliber that could garner such a significant return to make such an impact on the future of the organization,” Stearns said.

Devin Williams, who has been one of the top closer the past two months, will become the Brewers’ closer. Rodgers likely will be the 8th-inning setup man with Brad Boxberger working the seventh.

The Brewers have started fast at 7-2 since the All-Star break. They open a three-game series at Pittsburgh tonight with Corbin Burnes on the mound. After that they return home for a three-game weekend series with Cincinnati.

** PACKERS DEFENSE DOMINANT EARLY IN CAMP

The scoreboard is 1-2 in favor of the defense after it got the better of it Thursday and Saturday. Friday was a light walkthrough and Sunday was a day off. The Packers will practice with shoulder pads Monday and full pads Tuesday, with Wednesday off.

Gary, whose name is being mentioned along with some of the NFL’s top pass rushers, has been difficult to block. He looks leaner, quicker and stronger than in the past, which is saying a lot.

Overall, the defense has played as fast and ferocious as practice allows.

Preston Smith, a defensive leader, is excited by Gary’s ascension.

“He’s been impressive since he’s been here,” Smith said of Gary. “Just seeing Rashan grow from a rookie until now, it’s just very impressive, man. We just seen what he did last year (9 ½ sacks), and I called it. I did call it early in the offseason. He just keeps stacking those years and keeps coming in working hard. He’s growing into a leader of his own. He’s grown into his own. He’s getting tremendous confidence and he’s playing at a high level and been really consistent with it.”

Defensive tackle Jarran Reed, cornerback Rasul Douglas and the mildly surprising Shemar Jean-Charles, a second-year corner, all have played well thus far. Veterans such as Kenny Clark, De’Vondre Campbell and Adrian Amos – as well as Smith – have been rock solid.

The defense has been vocal in terms of communicating with each other and directing some of the salty stuff at the offense.

“It’s a lot of trash-talking, a lot of confidence,” Smith said. “You just feel the energy in the meetings, out there in practice. Guys are feeling confident, guys are playing real fast, guys are playing at a high level and guys are playing together. We’re trying to stack our days, build off it and keep moving forward.”

A spirited defense undoubtedly will sharpen the offense.

At least that’s the plan.

Doubs shows out early as Packers open camp

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Romeo Doubs is a perfect 2-for-2 after a pair of eye-opening practices replete with sweet catches to kick off the Packers’ 2022 training camp.

Doubs (6-1 ¾, 202) grabbed everything thrown his way – and everyone’s attention in the process – by showing up fit, mentally sharp and ready to roll.

It’s a ray of hope at a position that’ll take all it can get.

Davante Adams’ departure is a source of anxiety. When a young receiver such as Doubs steps up like a pro it makes the growing pains easier to manage.

Obviously, it’s only a scintilla of a sample size, but it’s better than opining about how Doubs appears unable to catch a cold, much less a laser from Aaron Rodgers. That isn’t the case. Doubs body is hard, his hands are soft, and his mind is bright.

Doubs, the 132nd player selected in the draft, was a highly productive, sure-handed receiver at Nevada. He fit the Packers’ modus operandi at receiver: He finds ways to catch passes and make plays despite the fact that the defense knows the quarterback is coming his way.

It was the same for Jordy Nelson at Kansas State, Greg Jennings at Western Michigan and Davante Adams at Fresno State.

Whether Doubs attains their high level of proficiency is impossible to say.

What the rookie does have going for him – and it was the same for his predecessors – was Aaron Rodgers throwing him the football.

There are other similarities between Doubs and the aforementioned greats. He is potential bursting at the seams. He also is thoughtful and soft-spoken. He doesn’t seem to have one shred of prima donna in him.

He’s humble. And he’s a receiver? Go figure.

“I’ve been doing it since high school,” Doubs said of his low-key approach. “Everybody knows that I’m not this big …”

He is too much the gentleman to curse, but he made his point nonetheless.

“And I understand that celebrating his important,” he continued. “I just make sure I try to focus on the next play. That’s my biggest thing for me. You can have a great play, next play could be bad. Emotions change, so that’s why I try to make sure I stay flat-lined.”

It showed in his Day Two approach after an impressive debut.

LaFleur was asked about Doubs’ big Day One before Thursday’s practice. He said, “Anybody can do something one day.”

Now it is two days and counting for Doubs.

One of his more impressive plays came in the red zone when lined up against cornerback Eric Stokes. Rodgers underthrew a pass to the corner of the end zone, but Doubs reached over Stokes and hauled it in for a touchdown.

Doubs was nearly as impressive while discussing it with reporters afterward.

“I knew it was a man look because he had heavy eye on me,” Doubs said. “I just wanted to get attack leverage and Aaron threw a great ball and I was able to make a great grab and go on to the next play.”

Did he think the football was coming his way?

“Yes, because I had just enough space from the sideline to make sure I can get the ball and get my feet inbounds,” he said. “Pre-snap, I had a feeling the ball was coming to me just based on the spacing.”

But wait … there’s more.

“Stokes’ back was turned. I’ve noticed watching film that the majority of some of the QBs’ throws, receivers get chances based on the DB’s POV (point of view). His back was turned. From that point, he doesn’t know where the ball’s going to, if it’s going to go over him, under him. His back was turned, Aaron gave me a chance and I was able to make something happen.”

Sounds like a seasoned veteran.

Clearly, he is making the most of his opportunity while veteran Sammy Watkins and rookie Christian Watson are on the PUP list.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst isn’t surprised by Doubs’ impressive start.

“He plays fast, runs by a lot of people, so we’re good there,” he said of Doubs’ 40-yard dash time at the combine. “The 40’s great but that play speed on the tape is real.”

So is his play speed on Ray Nitschke Field.

Doubs’ other big plays included a touchdown catch against De’Vondre Campbell. It was a case of the rookie taking advantage of a mismatch, even if the defender happens to be an All-Pro inside linebacker.

“I thought today was just another great day of practice,” Doubs said. “Just being myself, I make sure that I try to be as humble as I possibly can. Just stay consistent, just focus on the little things.”

Packers’ camp opens

with SB LVII the goal

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers is back for his 18th season with a singular purpose: Leading the Packers to victory in Super Bowl XLIII.

That’s it.

Anything less would be disappointing at this stage of the future Hall of Fame quarterback’s illustrious career. Rodgers has done and won practically everything there is for an NFL quarterback, but the four-time MVP wants one more ring.

The 38-year-old quarterback is all in and he wants his fans to know it.

“In March, when I made the decision to return, that’s 100 percent in,” he said. “Of course, you think about the next chapter and what’s next in your life all the time. It doesn’t mean you’re not fully invested. When I said I’m back, I’m 100 percent invested. When I’m here, I’m all in, and those guys know that. They know what to expect from me, the type of play, the type of leadership, and that’s what they’re going to get.”

Rodgers’ commitment is unquestioned, as is his ability to play at a high level: Witness his by back-to-back MVP seasons in 2020 and 2021.

While a third straight MVP seems less likely because of Davante Adams’ departure and the sheer difficulty of the feat, it’s not out of the realm of possible.

Rodgers won his second straight MVP (and fourth overall) after leading the NFL in passer rating, touchdown percentage and interception percentage. He threw for 37 touchdowns to just four interceptions, and his passer rating was 111.9.

Naturally, Rodgers’ success depends upon the offensive line play, and right now that position is the team’s greatest concern.

Both starting tackles – David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins – will open the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list.

It means Yosh Nijman, Cole Van Lanen, Sean Rhyan and Zach Tom will need to step up at the tackle positions until they return.

Thanks to head coach Matt LaFleur’s scheme, the staff’s coaching and GM Brian Gutekunst’s acquisitions the Packers should be able to survive until their No. 1 offensive line is healthy and in place.

LaFleur surely prefers dealing with the known, such as Adams’ departure, rather than tap-dancing around the unknown. Adams was traded March 18, so he’s had four months to calculate.


Fortunately, LaFleur knows he’ll have his trigger-man (Rodgers) from Day One.

The rest he can figure out.

It starts with teaching his team to play great offense despite being without one of the NFL’s top receivers.
If this were jeopardy, LaFleur could pose the answer, “Aaron Jones.”

To which Rodgers would reply, “Who put up insane numbers when the Packers were without Davante Adams?”

That is the correct answer for a chance to win Super Bowl LVII.

More accurately, given A.J. Dillon’s emergence, the question to the answer is Jones AND Dillon replacing Adams in the offense. The only reason Jones’ numbers weren’t better with Adams out is that he had to occasionally take a series off to catch his breath from all the big plays.

Now it’ll be Jones and Dillon collectively inflicting damage.

LaFleur’s offense will revolve around the running backs, rather than one receiver, which should make it less predictable. Whether it is more explosive remains to be seen, but the potential is exciting.

Then again, as Rodgers said, “I like production over potential. We have some production. We have a lot of potential.”

The potential-to-production transformation is going to require patience, persistence and practice to make it work. The Packers are up for the challenge on the heels of back-to-back losses in the NFC title game. They’re willing to do whatever takes to clear that final hurdle.

On offense it’ll require a bit of rewiring.

The Packers, 13-4 last season, ranked 10th in points (26.5 per game) and yards (365.6 per game). They were third in turnover ratio at +13 with 26 takeaways (18 interceptions, eight fumbles recovered) to just 13 turnovers (five interceptions, eight fumbles lost) in 2021.

LaFleur’s offenses have been among the NFL’s best in terms of avoiding turnovers, pre-snap penalties, drops and blown assignments. Any one of those, in and of itself, can be a game-killer. The Packers have kept them to a minimum under LaFleur and the win-loss record bears it out.

Those tenets of his offense aren’t likely to change.

The play-action pass remains a critical component of the Packers’ attack.

Opposing defenses face a difficult choice against Green Bay’s offense.

They can play it straight with six or seven in the box and hope that the Jones-Dillon duo doesn’t crush them. Or they can commit more players to stopping the run and pray Rodgers doesn’t gash them.

Good luck with that.

Defensively, second-year coordinator Joe Barry has a simple approach in Year 2.

“Daily excellence is our goal,” he said earlier this offseason. “I tell the defense all the time, if you can walk out of this building 1 percent better than you walked in it – and it sounds maybe kind of corny or cheesy – but I think if you take that mentality every single day …

“I think it’s so great that we have guys that, they look back at last year and even though from a team standpoint it was brutal, devastating, we didn’t hoist the Lombardi Trophy, so in our mind it’s a failure as a team, but when you do look at the specifics of the way we played, we played good. But our goal is to play great and our goal is to play great every single week, and we’ve got a bunch of guys in that locker room with that mindset and we’re chomping at the bit to get started.”

So how good can Green Bay’s defense be in 2022?

“It’s going to be scary,” edge rusher Rashan Gary said. “Once we get our communication down and we’re all on the same page, it’s going to be good.”

“Just nasty,” All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander added.

The defense features All-Pro Kenny Clark up front along with Dean Lowry, T.J. Slaton, Reed and Wyatt.

The outside linebackers are set with rising star Rashan Gary opposite Preston Smith, while Campbell, Walker and Krys Barnes will work at inside linebacker.

The corner trio of Alexander, Eric Stokes and Douglas rank among the league’s best at that position. Safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage are experienced, reliable and talented on the back end. Shawn Davis, a fifth-round pick by Indianapolis in 2021, is the third safety.

A year ago, the Packers’ special teams was nasty and not in a good way.

Rich Bisaccia intends to change all that, beginning with that most important of operations: the snap, the hold and the kick.

For his part, Bisaccia is excited to be working with Mason Crosby, who struggled in part because of the errant/inconsistent operation.

“He’s had a hell of a career,” Bisaccia said of Crosby. “The one good thing I know about Crosby is that he’s come back from a down year to play really well. I’m excited about being around him, learning from him, seeing what his strengths are and where we can go forward and keep improving.”

Pat O’Donnell, the veteran ex-Bears punter, was brought in to deliver in cold weather, and to be a reliable holder for Crosby.

Steven Wirtel is first up as the long snapper.

 

Brewers searching for slump-busting 2nd half

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Brewers enter the All-Star break clinging to sole possession of first place in the NL Central by the thinnest of margins.

The Brewers (50-43) are a half-game up on St. Louis (50-44) atop the NL’s weakest division. That’s the circumstance due in part to the Cardinals-Reds game being postponed Sunday. Perhaps Mother Nature is a Brewers fan, and if that’s the case, she also feels their fans’ pain.

To say the All-Star break came at a good time is an understatement.

If this were the Daytona 500 the Brewers would’ve been black-flagged a couple hundred laps in for leaking oil. Instead, all they can do is play on and hope that their pitchers get healthy and their bats awake from a half-season slumber.

The Brewers rode their strong starting pitching, lights out relief and steady defense to an impressive 32-18 win-loss record through 50 games. But when Freddy Peralta (right shoulder), Brandon Woodruff (Reynaud syndrome) and Aaron Ashby (left forearm inflammation) were placed on the IL – Woodruff and Ashby have since returned – the Brewers have struggled mightily.

Milwaukee is 18-25 since May 31. They have won just three of 14 series – and none in July – despite playing the Cubs, Pirates and Reds.

The Brewers’ plus-25 in runs for/against ranks eighth in the National League, and they have lost eight of 11 going into the break.

They are 28-19 against the NL Central, but only 11-13 versus the NL East and 4-8 versus the NL West. They are 7-3 in interleague play.

The Brewers lack of offense has been the team’s greatest problem.

“If you look up and down our lineup, it’s a lot of players having the same offensive year,” manager Craig Counsell said. “I don’t think any of them are dramatically underperforming, but I don’t think anybody’s having a big offensive season.”

Corbin Burnes, the NL’s reigning Cy Young Award winner, still has faith.

“Once everyone gets it going, it’ll be awesome,” Burnes said on MLB.com. “We’ve seen what this offense can do when they’re clicking. Defensively, we’ve got a ton of Gold Glovers, so all the pieces are there, and it’s just a matter of putting it all together, and we know we can.”

The Brewers’ lack of punch has been exacerbated by their recent lack of reliable relief pitching. Milwaukee’s bullpen has given up 28 earned runs in 38 2/3 innings during the past 11 games (3-8), and the pen has been tagged with six of the losses.

Josh Hader, the Brewers’ All-Star closer, has been especially bad recently.

Hader didn’t allow a run until June 7 this season. Now, his earned-run average has ballooned to a whopping 4.50 after his recent struggles. He served up a grand slam in the Brewers’ 8-5 loss Friday night to the Giants.

Hader opted out of the All-Star Game to be with his family during the break. It has been a long and grueling stretch for Hader, whose wife, Maria, struggling with health issues during the couple’s first pregnancy. After several stints on the family leave list, Hader’s wife delivered a healthy baby boy.

Perhaps the mental grind of balancing work and home took a toll.

Fortunately for Hader, and the Brewers, he will be able to recharge this week.

The best bit of news recently is Devin Williams’ addition to the NL All-Star team. Williams has been one of the league’s top relievers during the past two months. In Thursday’s series opener at San Francisco, Williams extended his scoreless-innings streak to 24 2/3 innings, the longest streak in the NL.

Brad Boxberger has been good, but others such as Brent Suter, Trevor Gott and Jandel Gustave have been less reliable.

“We’ve just played so many close games, so (Williams’) innings have obviously been really valuable,” Counsell told reporters. “Your bullpen is going to be in very high-pressure situations every time they take the ball.”

The stress is even higher because of the volume of close games.

The Brewers are 17-13 in one-run games. The 30 one-run games is tied for the second-most in the NL, trailing only Miami’s 36 one-run games. With the offense being so erratic, the pitchers have to be nearly perfect to win games.

Offensively, one bright spot is the team’s 15-15 win-loss record against left-handed starting pitchers. They are 35-28 against right-handers.

One reason for the success against lefties is the presence of Hunter Renfroe. The Brewers need Renfroe to be a reliable force in the heart of the order. He hits left-handers especially well, and forms a difficult one-two punch with Andrew McCutchen, who has been a strong addition this season.

The Brewers rank second in the NL in home runs with 124 and are led by Willy Adames with 19 and Rowdy Tellez with 18. They also rank fifth in slugging percentage at .407.

However, they are eighth in runs scored and 13th in batting average, so even when they’re hitting well with runners in scoring position, there aren’t enough times they have runners to drive in.

The Brewers will have to play better to stay ahead of St. Louis in the NL Central, starting with being more consistent offensively.

The pitching is too good to struggle for long, especially in the bullpen, so Milwaukee’s greatest strength (Burnes, Woodruff, Williams and Hader) remains the horse it is going to have to ride to win the division.

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