Packers’ preseason opener: 10 takeaways, including Jordan Love’s rebound

The Green Bay Packers scored 36 points against the Cincinnati Bengals in Friday night’s preseason opener, even with three turnovers, all by their backup quarterbacks. So it’s time to bring the Lombardi Trophy home, right?

I kid, but coach Matt LaFleur has to be pleased with most of what he saw from his bunch after a long week in Cincinnati, even against a team that rested the vast majority of its starters.

Here are 10 things of note I took away from the the Packers’ 36-19 victory — good and bad.

Jordan Love had a glaring mistake on his first series when he overthrew tight end Luke Musgrave on a third-and-7 crosser. He not only overthrew him, but according to Next Gen Stats, the nearest defender was 9 yards away from Musgrave. But as he has multiple times this summer, Love responded to an early miscue with impressive work later. This time, it was via a trio of throws on his second and final drive of the night, a 7-yard completion to wide receiver Christian Watson in the flat on third-and-5, a dart to wideout Romeo Doubs for 12 yards between two defenders to set up first-and-goal, and a nicely lofted ball on a crossing route to Doubs for a 9-yard touchdown. Love finished 7-for-10 for 46 yards and a touchdown (the Bengals played only one defensive starter, safety Dax Hill). LaFleur said that won’t be Love’s last preseason game action but didn’t specify whether he’ll play next week against the New England Patriots after two joint practices or in the exhibition finale against the Seattle Seahawks.

“All in all, I thought it was a good first performance,” LaFleur said. “It was very limited action. I’m sure he would love to have the throw to Musgrave back, but there’s a lot to learn from. A lot of good came out of it. Just the poise he showed, the command he showed. I thought we were getting in and out of the huddle quickly, so I thought it was a really good first exposure for him for this season.”

“The one I wish I could get back: that throw over the middle to Luke,” Love said. “Man, just missed him. That’s an easy throw, routine throw, just couldn’t come up with it. But other than that, I thought we played well. I thought all the pass game was in stride.

“I think those two series that I had, obviously came up with the touchdown at the end, so I was happy about that. … We ran a crossing pattern. It was Cover 1, and we ran the same concept at practice earlier in the week. It’s just kind of reading off the safety, seeing which crossing route he’s going to take. Early in practice, he took Romeo, and that’s when Christian had the touchdown. This time, he chose Christian and it opened up Romeo. I saw the DB trying to make a play underneath, just tried to put it over the top, and Romeo made a great play right there going up and getting it.”

Now we all know how Penn State fans felt watching Sean Clifford for the past two decades. Sometimes, he gives you an ulcer. Others, you think he’s a future Hall of Famer (OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration). Clifford stayed on brand in his first NFL game action, completing 20 of 26 passes for 206 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

The good? The kid has moxie and can throw a laser. Firing a slant to wide receiver Samori Toure for a 25-yard gain on second-and-4. A perfectly placed lob over the middle off his back foot for receiver Jayden Reed, who made an impressive leaping contested catch for 15 yards on third-and-4. A scramble drill to Toure for 28 yards on third-and-9 backed up in Green Bay territory. And there was plenty more.

The bad, though? The pick six when he should’ve taken a sack with pressure in his face. A risky throw to tight end Tucker Kraft, who was outmuscled by safety Tycen Anderson for the second pick. Bad misses to wide-open tight ends Kraft and Austin Allen. If his past is any indication of what’s to come at the next level, get used to days like that if Clifford ever has to play in a game that counts.

“I do love the fact that he had to battle through some adversity, throwing the two picks, and then coming back and leading us on a two-minute (touchdown drive),” LaFleur said. “So I thought just to see him not be fazed by those situations, I thought it showed something. You can’t coach that. You can talk about it all you want, but that is intrinsic and he possesses that and just happy that he was able to battle through that and overcome it.”

You may have never heard of Emanuel Wilson before Friday night. He’s an undrafted rookie running back out of Fort Valley State. He tweeted earlier Friday that it was the 14-year anniversary of his father Manuel’s death. His opening act in the NFL? Six carries for 111 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80-yard score on which Wilson darted at cornerback Marvell Tell III head-on in the hole before bouncing to the right and blazing down the sideline past safety Larry Brooks. Not bad for a guy trying to overtake Patrick Taylor and Tyler Goodson in the competition for Green Bay’s third running back.

“I can’t really explain the emotions, but I just know that he’s proud of me, reaching my goals and everything in life,” Wilson said. “He’s always been with me since the day he died. I can’t even explain it. I just know that he was always here for me.”

Carrington Valentine’s day

I’m ready to anoint cornerback Carrington Valentine as the defensive player of the first 2 1/2 weeks of the preseason. He impressed in practices in Green Bay and did so again in Cincinnati, tying a game high with three passes defensed and an interception. He had a really nice pass breakup on a 50-50 ball down the left sideline to wideout Andrei Iosivas, an impressive tackle on the edge to knock running back Chase Brown out of midair for no gain, another pass breakup against Iosivas on third down and an interception on which he corralled a deflection off the hands of receiver Shedrick Jackson. The Packers already have one of the deepest cornerback groups in the NFL, led by Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas. It seems to be getting even deeper with the continued emergence of a rookie seventh-round pick.

“I’m not scared to run, I’m not scared to tackle, I’m not scared how big you are,” the 6-foot Valentine said. “I’m going to go out and I’m going to go after you, regardless. It’s just who I am.”

Rookie pass catchers

Musgrave and Reed are going to be consistently featured in the passing game come the regular season. Practice implied it. Friday’s game supported the case even further. Musgrave’s knack for getting open downfield and Reed’s speed and hands (when he catches the ball) almost make you forget about some of the drops. Those just might be what Green Bay has to live with because the ups are that impressive with these two. Musgrave is already cemented as the No. 1 tight end and Reed as the primary slot receiver.

The mercurial summer of rookie sixth-round kicker Anders Carlson continues. His 45-yard field goal couldn’t have been any more dead center Friday night, but then he pushed two extra points wide right. In Wednesday’s joint practice, he missed an extra point on his first kick before making seven consecutive field goals. He had made 19 of 23 field goals entering Friday (35-for-50 in practice), and then has another day that makes you question how much longer the Packers are going to keep him, or at least keep him as the only kicker on the roster. Guess what? He ain’t going anywhere. General manager Brian Gutekunst preached patience with a rookie kicker the last time he spoke with reporters, and special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia is not one to act impulsively. Heck, Carlson’s older brother, Daniel, lost his job as a rookie with the Minnesota Vikings after missing a couple of kicks at Lambeau Field in 2018 and is now one of the NFL’s best kickers, largely thanks to Bisaccia.

“I don’t wanna look too far into it,” LaFleur said. “It’s one game, but as long as you learn from it and get better and make the necessary adjustments, then a lot of times you come back stronger from it.”

From 2 dismissals to the 53?

Brenton Cox Jr. was dismissed from the football teams at Georgia and Florida. The rookie undrafted free agent surely would’ve been selected if not for that. Cox led Florida in sacks in 2021 (8.5). He tallied 32 tackles for loss in 33 games for the Gators, including 14.5 in 13 games in 2021. Friday night, it was his deflection at the line of scrimmage that led to safety Dallin Leavitt’s interception of Trevor Siemian’s pass, and Cox’s pressure of Siemian up the middle later in the game helped force an incompletion. Don’t be surprised if he cracks the initial 53-man roster as a sixth edge rusher, behind Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, Lukas Van Ness, Justin Hollins and Kingsley Enagbare.

Undrafted rookie fullback Henry Pearson is making the most of his chances while fellow tight end/fullback/H-back Josiah Deguara works his way back to full participation from a calf injury. Pearson made an acrobatic catch for a big gain with the starters in joint practice and laid two crunching blocks Friday to spring a Clifford 13-yard run and Wilson’s 11-yard touchdown run. He committed a boneheaded late-hit penalty covering a punt return, so that doesn’t exactly help his case.

No shortage of options

LaFleur said mostly everyone was on the table to play in the preseason opener, and he wasn’t kidding, a stark change from years past. The only defensive starters who didn’t play were Gary and Alexander because of knee and groin injuries (Gary just returned to practice from ACL rehab and Alexander’s ailment isn’t considered serious) and defensive tackle Kenny Clark, who warmed up with the team. The only offensive starter not to play was left tackle David Bakhtiari. No starters appeared to be injured in Friday’s game.

The injuries

Several Packers left Friday’s game with injuries, the most notable being tight end Tyler Davis. LaFleur announced that Davis, who led the team in special teams snaps last season, suffered a “pretty significant” knee injury.

“My heart hurts for him,” LaFleur said. “He’s been a key contributor to our success over the last couple years, whether it’s on teams or carving out a role in our offense, and he’s the consummate professional. He’s a great teammate, just a great human, and we’re gonna miss him.”

Other players to leave early because of injury were offensive tackle Caleb Jones (ankle), running back Goodson (shoulder), offensive tackle Luke Tenuta (ankle, carted off) and cornerback Corey Ballentine (stinger).

(Photo of Emanuel Wilson running for a second-half touchdown Friday: Katie Stratman / USA Today)

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