GREEN BAY — With the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols still limiting players’ access to facilities on Mondays, Matt LaFleur was a little limited in his injury information Monday afternoon. But the Green Bay Packers coach had plenty of concerns — more than he had last season, when the Packers had some of the best injury luck in the league.
Having lost running back/returner Tyler Ervin (ankle), hybrid safety/inside linebacker Raven Greene (shoulder) and rotational defensive lineman Billy Winn (triceps) during the course of Sunday’s 30-16 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field — with tight end Jace Sternberger and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown also having been sidelined by concussions — LaFleur didn’t need a full update from Packers head athletic trainer Bryan “Flea” Engel to know that the team might be without a few key contributors for a while.
The Packers also played Sunday without starting center Corey Linsley, who is on injured reserve for at least another two weeks with a knee injury.
The injury-tracking website Man Games Lost had the Packers as the eighth-healthiest team in the NFL last year, when they lost only 152 player games to injuries and really only were without one big-name player — wide receiver Davante Adams, who missed four games with a turf toe injury — throughout the season.
This year, the Packers are the NFL’s ninth-most injured team with 132 man games lost to injury this season.
Greene’s shoulder injury, which came during the Eagles’ Jalen Reagor’s punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, might be the most problematic because the Packers don’t have a clear-cut replacement for a player who had two tackles, a half-sack and two quarterback hits against the Eagles after registering a pass breakup and 15 combined tackles in the previous two games combined. Greene missed the Packers’ Sept. 13 opener at Minnesota with an oblique injury and their Nov. 1 game against the Vikings with a quadriceps injury.
Ervin’s ankle injury, meanwhile, is just the latest in a string of issues the versatile offensive chess piece and returner has experienced this season. Sunday was Ervin’s first game back after missing two games with an injury to his ribs, and the rib injury came after he missed two games with a wrist injury. He also left the Packers’ Week 2 win over Detroit with a concussion.
For the season, Ervin has 13 carries for 67 yards, 11 receptions for 84 yards and is averaging 19.6 yards per kickoff return (on 10 returns) and 4.0 yards per punt return (on five returns). His longest kickoff return went for 34 yards; his longest punt return this year is just 11 yards.
“I’ve got a lot of concern on both of those guys, whether they’re not going to be available,” LaFleur admitted during a Zoom call with reporters. “Again, I’ve got to check in with ‘Flea.’ … Our process, in terms of the protocols that are in place, the communication has not been where it typically is.”
The news likely isn’t good on Winn, given that the team ruled him out almost immediately after his injury occurred Sunday and he has had a triceps injury in the past. Winn fought his way back into the NFL this season after missing all of the 2017 and 2018 seasons with a catastrophic knee injury and all of last season with a triceps injury.
Most triceps injuries are season-ending.
“I haven’t got confirmation on that, but definitely, very much a concern,” LaFleur said.
If Ervin’s ankle injury will sideline him for a while, at least they can segue into having recently signed Tavon Austin handle his return duties and also contribute on offense. LaFleur coached Austin with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 and said Austin could have played against the Eagles had Ervin not returned to action.
“He’s got to be ready to go, and I think he was ready to go last week,” LaFleur said of Austin, who joined the team last Tuesday. “Can he fulfill that role of Swerve (on offense)? We’ll see where he gets throughout the week. But certainly as a returner, that’s one of the main reasons he was brought here. He’s got to be ready to go.
“I know he’s excited for his opportunity, and he’s a guy that I’ve got a lot of familiarity with being with him in L.A. I’ve got a lot of confidence in his ability. So we’ll see how the week of prep goes and practice, and we’ll see where we’re at for Sunday.“
Austin has returned punts for much of his career but hasn’t been a regular kickoff returner since 2013, his rookie season with the Rams as a first-round draft pick.
Like Ervin last season, Austin could be a late-in-the-year find who could give the Packers a lift. More importantly, if Ervin isn’t available next Sunday at Detroit — or for longer — Austin has the skill set to be the motion man on LaFleur’s jet sweep action on offense in addition to chipping in on special teams.
“I’ve been battling. My career has been up and down through injuries, through different coaches that I played for,” Austin said last week. “I’ve kind of been bouncing around a lot. As far as a position, truly at heart I am a receiver. (But) to be honest, I am a running back as well. It’s just about somebody really giving me the chance and really believing in me and letting me get comfortable and letting ‘Tay’ do what he does best.
“With me, and them telling me they don’t really have a certain position for me … I can play any position that the coaches draw up for me and put me in the best position to make plays.”
If there was one play that was still bothering LaFleur, it was Reagor’s 73-yard touchdown return of JK Scott’s fourth-quarter, 52-yard punt. LaFleur wasn’t pleased with the kick itself, the coverage or Scott’s less-than-athletic tackling attempt as the last line of defense.
LaFleur said the greatest issue with the punt was that it was right down the middle of the field, putting the coverage unit in a tough position. Still, there was no excuse for letting Reagor get loose.
“It’s always a concern when you’re giving up big plays like that. It’s just like any other phase — you need every player doing their responsibility and if you don’t get that done, bad things typically happen,” LaFleur said. “I mean, we’ve got to have a better punt. JK knows it. We can’t put the ball right down the middle of the pipe. Our gunner should’ve been on the left side of the returner and he ended up on the right side. It goes back to every man owning their responsibility and doing that to the best of their ability.”
As for Scott’s tackling form, LaFleur just wanted more of an effort, as Scott had a chance to at the very least force Reagor out of bounds around the Green Bay 25-yard line but barely slowed him down. Running back Jamaal Williams might have caught up to Reagor had Scott at least made him decelerate. Greene’s injury happened when he dove to tackle Reagor near the Packers sideline around the Green Bay 40-yard line.
“I just think it’s more or less just the mindset when you get in that situation,” LaFleur said of Scott, who also had a poor tackling attempt on Jacksonville’s Keelan Cole’s 91-yard punt return on Nov. 15. “What we’ll tell him is to “Hey, take your shot, man. Make him cut it back, whatever, and hopefully the pursuit’s there.’ But it does us no good when we’re backpedaling and the guy is giving us moves.
“Those guys are typically going to be a little bit more athletic than most punters. That’s just the way it works right? You have to close the space and take a shot at the guy. If you get him down, great, if you miss him, then we need the pursuit to be there.“
Photos: Packers' 2020 season so far in pictures