Thu, 26 Nov 2020

Unexpected contributors have underscored the Packers’ 5-1 start  Wes Hodkiewicz

GREEN BAY - There isn't much time for reflection in an NFL locker room at halftime with players collecting their breath and coaches laying out the plan for the remainder of the game.

But amidst the commotion, Packers first-year receiver Malik Taylor still found a moment of solitude after the Packers darted to a 21-0 lead over the Houston Texans this past Sunday.

A few minutes earlier, Taylor had caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to complete a nine-play, 64-yard series for Green Bay's offense.

Not only was it Taylor's first NFL touchdown reception, but also the first time he'd reached the end zone at all since Dec. 8, 2018, the day Taylor caught his only touchdown during an otherwise injury-riddled senior season at Ferris State.

From where he was standing in the visiting locker room at NRG Stadium, Rodgers could tell what that catch meant to his 24-year-old receiver.

"I was walking around the far side of the locker room and I just looked over and saw Malik," Rodgers recalled Wednesday.

"You guys have seen the picture of me in Detroit in 2016 when we won six in a row and it's in the locker room - it's one of my favorite pictures ... because I think it totally encapsulates the emotion of that moment, there's just such a contentment about it and joy that you kinda see in my face.

"That's what I felt looking at Malik in the locker room, that's the emotions he was going through. There was just, like a, relief, joy, happiness, contentment, pride."

There's been a lot of those seminal moments this year for the Packers, where a player - heralded or unheralded - steps into the spotlight and creates memory that transcends a play.

Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Robert Tonyan, Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Kingsley Keke already have turned in career-best performances in the first half of the 2020 season.

While Taylor's big day may have paled in comparison to outsiders (two catches for six yards and the TD), it's also everything that's made the Packers' 5-1 start so special.

Originally considered a longshot to make any headway in Green Bay after signing before the start of training camp in 2019, Taylor stuck around all season as a member of the team's practice squad before making the 53-man roster this summer.

Having caught his first NFL pass two weeks ago against Atlanta, Taylor leaked out of a bunch formation to record his first touchdown against the Texans. The 6-foot-1, 216-pound receiver was quickly swarmed by the entire offense, with Rodgers and Adams being two of the first to the fray.

"To see him catch that ball (against Atlanta) and how excited he was about that and then to turn around and score a touchdown in a big game like that, it's huge," Adams said. "And you could see from his celebration, he was ecstatic. I come flying over there and it was almost like my little brother, seeing him make a play out there. It's been awesome seeing his growth."

Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur, who doubles as offensive play-caller, is typically the last person to take credit for anything but Rodgers went out of his way Wednesday to praise LaFleur for his adaptability, particularly in the face of injuries.

Against the Texans, the Packers were without five players (Jones, Lazard, All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor and Josiah Deguara) who started the opener in Minnesota.

Instead, Billy Turner made his first start in four years at left tackle, while swing tackle Rick Wagner filled in for Turner at right tackle. Fourth-year veteran Jamaal Williams stepped in for his good friend Jones in the Packers' backfield and a slew of skill-position players have worked to occupy Lazard's vacancy.

"That's the beauty in what Matt's done ... what he's done with the personnel groupings has been the beauty in the offense," Rodgers said. "It's been the biggest learning for (the coaches) each week is trying to put together packages of personnel that can fit the guys who are going to play, and not knowing on a Monday and Tuesday when much of the plan gets put together is probably the hardest part for him.

"I think he's done a great of trying to find ways to get our guys on the field and then get guys in position where they can do some of the things they're asked to do."

And that's meant finding ways to incorporate Taylor, second-year receiver Darrius Shepherd, veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis and former third-round pick Jace Sternberger into the passing game at times - and not living in one step personnel grouping.

That flexibility will be key to sustaining the Packers' fast start. As the season wears on, collaborative moments like Taylor's first touchdown this past Sunday are what the Packers hope will underscore a championship season.

"It was a big deal for me," said Taylor on Total Packers this week. "When you think big picture, not a lot of guys get to get a touchdown in this league, but moving forward just for me to get a little taste of what it actually felt like, it just made me a little bit hungrier."

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