GREEN BAY, Wis. — As if the Packers weren’t already injured enough, they placed two defensive backs on injured reserve Wednesday.
Safety Darnell Savage Jr. suffered a calf injury against the Denver Broncos on Sunday and cornerback Eric Stokes injured his hamstring on his fourth snap back (all on special teams) after returning in Denver for the first time since his season-ending foot injury Nov. 6, 2022, in Detroit. Both will miss at least a month.
Savage played 344 defensive snaps through the first six games (82.89 percent), third most on the team behind cornerback Rasul Douglas (100 percent) and safety Rudy Ford (98.8). In his place, the Packers will start Jonathan Owens, who started 17 games last season for the Houston Texans but has played only 79 defensive snaps in 2023 since signing with the Packers in free agency.
Why the Packers seem likely to stay quiet at this year’s NFL trade deadline
Owens committed a costly holding penalty in Sunday’s loss to the Broncos, gifting Denver an automatic first down after an incomplete pass on third-and-3 midway through the third quarter. The Broncos would’ve attempted a 47-yard field goal to potentially stretch a 9-3 lead to a nine-point advantage, but Owens’ infraction gave the hosts a fresh set of downs, and they scored three plays later to take a 16-3 lead.
Overall, however, coach Matt LaFleur seemed pleased with Owens’ fill-in contributions.
“I thought he stepped in and did a nice job,” LaFleur said. “And we’re going to need that moving forward. Certainly, I think that just the timing of some of those third-down penalties … they’re critical penalties to extend drives and especially if you’ve got a guy and you’ve got a post safety, like, they may call it, they may not call it. He got called, so it’s just trying to play with great fundamentals, great technique and trust in your help when you have it.”
With Darnell Savage headed to IR, Jonathan Owens will take over at starting safety alongside Rudy Ford.
Owens today: “The next man has to come in and perform as the starter does … I’ve put in enough on the field to where the coaches do trust me and that’s a good feeling.” pic.twitter.com/mUxF03Esrl
— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) October 25, 2023
Owens, 28, played the third-most defensive snaps for the Texans last season (971, 82.85 percent) and is in line for a similarly heavy workload for at least the next four games.
“Someone has to step up,” Owens said. “That’s pretty much what the NFL is. The next man has to come in and perform as a starter does. Just ready for the opportunity. … I’ve put in enough on the field to where the coaches do trust me. That’s a good feeling. Just got to continue to build on that.”
Owens’ inclusion in the starting lineup comes at a time in which the Packers must generate more takeaways, if only because potentially setting an ailing offense up with better field position would be advantageous in helping revive quarterback Jordan Love and company. Green Bay ranks tied for last in the NFL with five other teams with only five takeaways through six games.
Ford has two interceptions, Douglas one and Quay Walker one, while defensive tackle Kenny Clark forced a fumble against the Bears in Week 1 that Douglas recovered. Sunday could be an opportune time for the Packers to prove takeaways truly do come in bunches, as the Vikings are tied for second-most turnovers in the NFL with 14.
“The ball’s in the air, we have to have a mindset of, it’s our ball,” Owens said. “Punchouts, anything we can do. Get as many hats to the ball and try to make plays.”
“Well, I think the emphasis, especially when you watch across the league and how people generate turnovers is just, it’s all the little things you’re doing,” LaFleur said. “How hard are you running after the football? When you get there, how are you attacking the ball carrier? Are you punching at the ball? Are you raking at the ball? All those little things add up. Are you able in the pass game to get your hand on a ball to maybe tip it up in the air to generate turnovers that way? Are you able to get to the quarterback? So there’s so many things that I know we can do at a higher level.”
While Douglas hasn’t missed a defensive snap this season, fellow outside cornerback Jaire Alexander has played less than half the defensive snaps because of a recurring back injury. Alexander missed the Packers’ Week 3 win over the Saints and their Week 4 loss against the Lions before playing all 64 defensive snaps against the Raiders in Week 5. He then missed last Sunday’s game against the Broncos following the bye week, but returned to practice on Wednesday, albeit in a limited capacity.
The Packers will not only shake up their safety lineup, but they changed their cornerback room, too, signing Corey Ballentine to the active roster from the practice squad and adding cornerback Robert Rochell from the Panthers’ practice squad to fill the spots vacated by Savage and Stokes. Rochell, a 2021 fourth-round pick of the Rams, played in 28 games over the last two seasons for Los Angeles with an interception, four passes defensed and two fumble recoveries. He has also played 364 special teams snaps over the last two seasons, including 325 in 2022.
Since being released by the Rams on cutdown day in August, he has spent time on the practice squads in Seattle and Carolina.
“Whatever role they assign to me or whatever situation they need me to be in, I’ll be ready to go, from defense to special teams,” Rochell said while adding he can play on all four kickoff and punt units. “Even if they need me on offense. Whatever it takes for us to get some wins.”
Jordan Love on facing a Vikings defense that has blitzed 50 more times than any other team in the NFL:
“I haven’t really faced a defense like Minnesota, the way they run it … it’s about getting the ball to our playmakers and letting them make plays, make people miss.” pic.twitter.com/hgVRnRLQOi
— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) October 25, 2023
Elsewhere on a busy day of transactions in Green Bay, the Packers added cornerback Zyon Gilbert to the practice squad to replace Ballentine. The Giants signed Gilbert as an undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic last season. He played in three games last season with one start before being cut in late August.
At Wednesday’s practice, the Packers were without center Josh Myers because of an ankle injury, tight end Luke Musgrave, who was still in a walking boot after suffering a left ankle injury when Broncos safety Kareem Jackson blasted him, and running back Aaron Jones.
Jones, who hasn’t been full go in a game since the first two and a half quarters of Week 1, participated in the team’s pre-practice stretch with a helmet on but didn’t join the team outside for the rest of practice.
“He’s just a little bit sore and, as to be expected,” LaFleur said of Jones, who has been managing a hamstring injury all season. “Hopefully we can ramp him up and get him more snaps out there.”
Jordan Love, Matt LaFleur continue to disappoint as Packers fall to Broncos
On the bright side for the Packers, wide receiver Christian Watson practiced after a knee injury scare on the final drive of Sunday’s game. He was a full participant in practice, too. Watson suffered the injury when Love threw a second-and-20 pass behind him with less than two minutes remaining, and Watson being slow to get off the field cost the Packers a valuable timeout to leave them with only one remaining.
“I was definitely a little scared there,” Watson said. “Definitely don’t want to deal with anything knee-wise. Don’t want to deal with any injuries. In the moment, it definitely was pretty scary, the initial pain, the initial shock of it. Obviously the situation, as well. Being under two minutes, I was doing anything I could to get up and get off the field, so we didn’t have to burn a timeout or get a 10-second runoff. I just couldn’t get up quick enough. All that matters is I’m good now, so just go on from there.”
Inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell was also practicing on Wednesday for the first time since suffering an ankle injury in Week 3 against the Saints. He was a limited participant and could return against the Vikings after missing three games and not being placed on injured reserve.
“Great to have him back,” LaFleur said. “He’s a leader on this football team and has been playing at a high level.”
(Photo: Ian Maule / Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time is on sale now. Order it here.