CLEVELAND – Hollywood has taken over downtown Cleveland this summer to film the movie The Avengers, a star-studded affair that had a portion of East 9th Street – not far from the Green Bay Packers’ team hotel -- cordoned off and turned into a war-torn replica of New York City on Saturday afternoon.
The superhero flick from Marvel Comics wasn’t filming at the time, so its stars -- Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man – were nowhere to be found, which made it a little bit like the Packers’ preseason-opening 27-17 loss to the Cleveland Browns Saturday night.
After a solid two-series cameo by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the No. 1 offense, the Super Bowl XLV champions turned things over to the backups for the rest of the evening, as is usually the case with the first exhibition game of the year. That allowed backup quarterback Matt Flynn and rookie wide receiver to steal the game film with the most impressive showings of the evening.
“I’ll say this: We were able to get everybody in the game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, summing up the evening. “Personnel evaluation was the No. 1 priority. We wanted to win the game – we always play to win the game – but personnel evaluation, operations of the sideline, management of your personnel, those are the three focuses that were expressed to the team, with the personnel evaluation being the A-No. 1 priority.
“There was quality work. We needed it.”
The No. 1 offense went three-and-out on its opening series before going to the no-huddle on its second possession. A pair of James Starks runs (5, 9 yards) sandwiched around a 6-yard completion to Andrew Quarless got the drive started, and when a Scott Wells holding penalty pushed the Packers into a first-and-20, Rodgers rolled right and found a wide open Donald Driver for a 31-yard gain. Two plays later, Rodgers back-shouldered Greg Jennings on a 21-yard touchdown pass that tied the game at 7-7.
“It looked like a first preseason game, I think,” Rodgers said. “Offensively, we did some good things. A lot of mental mistakes. When you’re doing Install I, II and II plays, you expect a little bit sharper game. I’m sure Mike does. … The first series was two poor throws on my part, then we got things going on the second series, and that felt more like our offense.
“It felt good (to play a game). It was a long offseason, it was nice to be back out there. I think the offensive line did a real nice job, that first group; Greg made a couple plays, made a real nice catch; Donald made a nice catch down the field. Those are the things we’re used to doing, so it was nice to go out there and make those plays.
“I played I think 12 plays; it was about normal. I was disappointed about the first drive, but the second drive felt good. It felt like we kind of picked up where we left off.”
The touchdown came when the Browns’ Jayme Mitchell jumped offsides and the receivers converted to all-go routes.
“(The no-huddle) is a good changeup for us, if we’re having a lull in the tempo or struggling offensively to kind of change things up, speed the tempo up and hopefully get an idea what the defense is doing and try to attack ‘em accordingly,” said Rodgers, who finished the night 6 for 8 for 74 yards and a touchdown (142.7 rating). “That was the plan, two series. Wish we would have scored twice, though.”
Defensively, the Packers played without veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, who was given the night off despite a cornerback group that had been thinned by injuries. Star outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who had played in just one preseason game in his first two NFL seasons, called it a night after four plays on the Browns’ opening series, which ended in a 27-yard Colt McCoy-to-Joshua Cribbs touchdown pass against Pat Lee. Lee was playing in the nickel defense with both Woodson and Sam Shields (hip/back) sitting out.
The remaining defensive starters played one more series and forced a three-and-out punt, with second-year safety Morgan Burnett – in his first action since tearing the ACL in his left knee in a Week 4 victory over Detroit – made back-to-back nice plays on second and third down. First, he stuffed Peyton Hillis for a 1-yard gain on second-and-2; then, on third down, he chased down tight end Evan Moore in the left flat for a 1-yard loss to force the punt.
“It felt good moving around,” Burnett said after the game. “I was really excited and pumped to get back out there, so I really had fun and enjoyed it. The knee feels great. It hasn’t bothered me at all during camp.”
Cleveland took a 14-7 lead on Hillis’ 3-yard touchdown run on its next possession, but Flynn orchestrated back-to-back scoring drives to give the Packers a 17-14 lead at halftime.
On the first, Flynn hit James Jones for a 14-yard gain, converted a third-and-5 with a scramble and saw Cobb make a terrific catch from the right slot on third-and-5 to set up Mason Crosby’s 31-yard field goal. Then, after a Browns punt, Flynn completed 6 of 8 passes for all 89 yards of a nine-play, 89-yard touchdown drive that ended with tight end Spencer Havner grabbing the ricochet of a pass intended for Tori Gurley for a 3-yard score. On the drive, Flynn and Cobb connected on a 19-yard gain on third-and-10 and for 28 yards when Cobb caught a 12-yard pass and racked up another 16 yards after the catch.
Flynn finished the night 11 for 18 for 126 yards and a touchdown (100.7 rating) before turning the reins over to third-stringer Graham Harrell for the second half.
“I thought the game went well. I did some good things. I feel good,” said Flynn, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract and figures to be a hot commodity on the free-agent market next spring. “I think I’ve probably told you 100 times that I’m a very confident player; always have been. But fourth year into it, I got to play a little bit last year, and I think that’s all helped my confidence build up. I’m just very comfortable with the offense, comfortable with what we’re trying to do out there and what the defense is trying to do out there. I was just having fun out there. It was a ton of fun, going out there, seeing another color jersey and just play.”
The Browns tied the game with a field goal drive coming out of halftime, and Harrell was victimized by a missed pass protection assignment on the play that gave the Browns the lead. When linebacker Brian Smith blitzed off the left-tackle side of the Packers’ offense, he wasn't picked up by tight end D.J. Williams – left tackle T.J Lang blocked down on the play – and came scot-free on Harrell, forcing a fumble that Titus Brown scooped up and returned 43 yards for a touchdown and a 24-17 lead.
“I don’t know what happened. I guess we’ll figure it out on film,” said Harrell, who was sacked three times, and fumbled on all three (the Packers recovered the other two). “On that one, they just came through. I don’t know if I missed a protection adjustment or we missed a block or what exactly happened, but the guy came through and I didn’t feel him and he made a good play.”
Harrell had moved the offense effectively until then, and he had a pair of solid drives thereafter, too. On the first, he had completions of 18 yards to Ryan Taylor and 14 yards to Kerry Taylor, but the drive stalled after a Shaky Smithson offensive pass interference penalty, and another sack/fumble – this time recovered by the Packers’ Theo Sherman – led to a punt.
Then, after a Josh Gordy interception, Harrell and the No. 3 offense took over at the Cleveland 23-yard line with a chance to tie the game. A 14-yard back-shoulder completion to Smithson on third-and-4 was wiped out on a replay review, but Harrell hit rookie running back Brandon Saine out of the backfield on fourth-and-4 to keep the drive going and set up first-and-goal at the Browns’ 10.
But the drive went backwards again, and while Harrell hit Ryan Taylor for 12 yards on third-and-goal from the 14, he and center Evan Dietrich-Smith botched the exchange on fourth down, and Harrell’s desperation chuck to Smithson lost yardage, ending the threat.
Harrell finished the night 11 for 22 for 100 yards with no TDs, no INTs and three sacks for a rating of 62.7.
“There was some good and there was some bad,” Harrell said. “The first game, with a lot of young guys and me being young as well, that’s to be expected. But obviously we wanted to execute better and get the ball in the end zone. We had some opportunities to get down there and it didn’t work out for us. Hopefully we can have a better showing next week.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.