Mike Pettine said several days ago. Rashan Gary has looked it throughout the first two weeks of his debut NFL regular season. The Green Bay Packers‘ top overall draft pick was “close” to breaking into the game.
“Rashan is developing well,” Pettine said Thursday. “It’s just frustrating. I know it’s frustrating for him sometimes, too. He’s doing some good things, it just hasn’t paid off for him yet.”
Consider Sunday the start of that payment cycle. Gary made four tackles in the Packers’ 27-16 win over the Denver Broncos, also recovering a fumble forced on a Preston Smith sack before sacking Joe Flacco himself in the fourth quarter to cap off a career day.
“Shoutout to Preston,” Gary told reported in the postgame Sunday, via the PackersNews.com. “He was focusing on the ball, he got it out and I just was in the right spot. I’m always hustling to the plays, so I just end up finding my way around the ball and I got on it.”
Beyond the stat sheets, Gary was heavily involved Sunday as the Packers defense sacked Flacco a total of six times, recovered two fumbles and saw its other first-round rookie, Darnell Savage Jr., snag his first-career interception in the takeaway that stifled the Broncos’ comeback efforts late in the third quarter.
Flacco was looking downfield on 2nd-and-8 and threw an ill-advised ball much shallower than any of his targets. As the ball was headed to the turf, where it otherwise would have just been ruled a bad play, Savage dove and made an athletic grab that gave the Packers all the end-game momentum they would need to move to 3-0 on the year.
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Rashan Gary’s Time Has Been Coming
Whereas Savage was able to transition from playing safety at Maryland to playing safety in Green Bay — and getting immediate first-team reps with a disgruntled Josh Jones on his way out of town — Gary was learning something completely new.
As Pettine emphasized in the preseason, Gary was expected to take some time adjusting after being spun from an edge rusher that bounced across multiple positions to outside linebacker, where the Packers felt he could best help them succeed.
“Just teaching him the outside linebacker position, we knew that he was going to be a little bit of a work-in-progress because, as I said before, we’re teaching him all of it, so there are some things he’s doing now that he won’t necessarily be doing in the regular season, but as we get closer we’re going to start to hone that down and put him in position where we know he’s ready to excel.”
—Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine during training camp on Aug. 17.
Quickness and strength made Gary appealing coming out of Michigan after a standout career, where he racked up 119 tackles and 9 1/2 sacks but was widely considered more valuable than his on-field production indicated. Some considered him the most athletic player at any position in the 2019 draft pool, and the Packers made the investment with the security net of two offseason pass-rushing additions: starters Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith.
Gary will need to much more than a sack and a couple of tackles to truly arrive as a pro, but Sunday’s victory over the Broncos gets the rookie a few steps in the right direction.
The Packers’ Potential is Getting Scary
The continued emergence of the Green Bay’s rookie players — and a renovated defense as a whole — remains the primary strength of a Packers team with an offense featuring the talents of Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and Aaron Jones among others. Scary, I know, and it gets scarier when looking at how things have trended.
The offense has been able to impose its will a little more each week on the scoreboard, notching a season-high 27 points behind an attack that was somewhat balanced. First-year coach Matt LaFleur split carries more evenly between Jones (10) and Jamaal Williams (12) against the Broncos as he said he would like to do, while second-year receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling shined with a 40-yard touchdown catch and 99 yards on six total receptions.
All of that made possible because of a Packers offensive line that just this week underwent a change when left guard Lane Taylor was placed on injured reserve and replaced with rookie Elgton Jenkins. Somewhat hysterically, Rodgers voiced his appreciation for his line protection in the postgame.
“I have to say, this is one of the cleanest games my jersey has ever looked,” Rodgers said, via The Athletic’s Matt Schneidman. “I took basically one shot. I hit the ground one time. I’m ecstatic … I’m gonna probably have a little Scotch and look at some Philly tape.”