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Analysis: Packers need to give Robert Tonyan bulk of playing time at tight end

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty  |  Packers News

GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur has had almost a full season now to learn his players, and it’s time to make some hard decisions for the season’s stretch drive.

One of them is to flip-flop Jimmy Graham’s and Robert Tonyan’s playing time at tight end.

Graham, who leads the Packers’ tight ends in snaps (524) for the season, had good numbers in the Packers’ 20-15 win over Washington on Sunday. He caught three passes for 49 yards, and two of his catches came on the Packers’ first-quarter touchdown drives.

But it has become painfully obvious that if LaFleur wants to challenge defenses downfield from the tight end position, Graham just doesn’t have the legs to do it anymore.

At this point in his career (age 33), Graham is reliable on the short throws. He knows the offense and the NFL game, and while he’s not a good blocker, he did have an impressive chip block Sunday in the second quarter that sent outside linebacker Montez Sweat onto his back.

But on the downfield throws, he can no longer make the plays. It happened again Sunday on a deep shot Aaron Rodgers took early in the second quarter. After a play-action fake, Rodgers rolled to his right to let Graham’s route develop, then threw back across the field to Graham on a corner route for what could have been a 40-yard-plus play.

Packers vs. Washington: Graham incompletion
Tight end Jimmy Graham (80) can't quite catch up with a deep ball from Aaron Rodgers in the second quarter of the Packers' win over Washington.

Technically, Rodgers overthrew Graham by about a foot. But really, Graham just didn’t have the acceleration to catch up to the ball. Tonyan is fast enough to probably make that play.

Tonyan, who caught a 12-yard touchdown pass Sunday, has played three games since missing five weeks because of a hip injury. He should have his playing legs back under him. He should be ready physically for a bigger role.

LaFleur surely had his reasons for playing Graham 32 snaps against Washington to Tonyan’s 20. Tonyan is only a second-year pro, so he lacks Graham’s veteran savvy. Tonyan hasn’t had nearly as many practice and game snaps as Graham this season, so he’s not as well versed in LaFleur’s offense, either.

Tonyan also doesn’t have much of an NFL track record (11 receptions, two touchdowns), and there’s no guarantee he’ll add punch to the Packers’ offense with more snaps. But 13 games into the season, it’s clear he’s got a better shot at making plays downfield than Graham. Their snaps should reflect that.

No Guice, no dice

The Packers have been winners all the way around on the injury front this season.

They’re having one of their least-injured seasons of the last 25 years, starting with having no likely starters on injured reserve — it’s a safe bet rookie Elgton Jenkins would have supplanted Lane Taylor at left guard not long after Taylor’s season ended anyway because of a biceps injury in Week 2.

They’ve also lost only nine starters' games to short-term injuries — receiver Davante Adams (four games), safety Darnell Savage (four) and cornerback Kevin King (one).

Then on the other side, they caught the Kansas City Chiefs without their reigning MVP quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) and two best pass rushers (Frank Clark and Chris Jones); a Carolina team that has played most of the season without its quarterback (Cam Newton) and the New York Giants without their best pass catcher (tight end Evan Engram).

That good fortune continued Sunday when Washington running back Derrius Guice injured his knee about halfway through the second quarter and didn’t return. That removed Washington’s best, most dynamic offensive player from the game and put more burden on rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins.

Packers vs. Washington: Guice injured
Washington RB Derrius Guice (29) shows his quickness and speed running past inside linebackers Blake Martinez (50) and B.J. Goodson (93) on his way to a 23-yard gain. Guice sustained a knee injury on the play and did not return to the game.

The difference between Guice and his backup, future Pro Football Hall of Famer and 34-year-old Adrian Peterson, is great enough that it’s fair to wonder how differently this game might have gone if Guice had played 60 minutes. Who knows how much more offense the Packers might have needed to win this one?

Peterson is Washington’s leading rusher for the season (718 yards), but Guice is by far the more explosive player at this stage in their careers. Just a week ago, the 2018 second-round pick rushed for 129 yards on 10 carries in Washington’s win at Carolina.

That difference was illustrated on two plays about a minute apart in the second quarter.

On the play Guice was injured, he showed his explosiveness when he took a handoff and ran around linebacker Blake Martinez, who’d tried to knife through a hole and catch Guice before the running back turned upfield. Martinez didn’t even touch him. Guice then blew past linebacker B.J. Goodson, who couldn’t get off a block soon enough to get more than a hand on him. Just like that, Guice was into the secondary on his way to a 23-yard gain.

Two plays later, Peterson cut back an inside zone run, went up field and picked up a nice 13-yard gain. But you can bet Guice wouldn’t have been caught from behind by Za’Darius Smith and Martinez on that play, and might even have bounced the run outside Martinez for a big gain or even 42-yard touchdown.

Packers vs. Washington: Peterson run
Washington RB Adrian Peterson (26) cuts back a run to pick up 13 yards but can't outrun Za'Darius Smith (55) and Blake Martinez (50) for a bigger gain.

Extra points

» The Packers have to figure out what’s going on with their SIS Grass field they installed last year, because the footing at Lambeau Field has been a problem all season. The field is a hybrid of grass and polyethylene fibers — the previous turf was grass and polypropylene fibers. Players had trouble with their footing all game, and afterward Washington cornerback Quinton Dunbar called Lambeau turf “the worst field that I have played on besides Buffalo.”

» Looks like the Packers finally found a viable punt returner for the rest of the season. Newly acquired Tyler Ervin averaged 12.8 yards on four returns and got the Packers’ punt-return yardage out of the red for the season — they were at minus-8 yards on punt returns going into the game and now are at plus-43. Ervin did what punt returners must do to have any success — he got upfield immediately rather than running east and west.

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