Packers see signs of life from tight ends, punt returner in lackluster win

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Here's a potential bonus for the Green Bay Packers down the stretch: They have a couple of tight ends who showed they can still be offensive contributors, and the punt return unit stopped going backwards.

While neither is likely to be their identity -- something that some contend this team has lacked all season -- both could help take some of the burden of production off Davante Adams and his fellow receivers and supplement the Packers' best means of offense, Aaron Jones.

At least that's how it looked early in Sunday's 20-15 win against the Washington Redskins, another win against a punchless NFC East team that proved more difficult -- and more boring -- than it should have been as Green Bay maintained its one-game lead in the NFC North.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur went heavy with tight ends -- using both two and three tight ends in the formation. The result: a 12-yard touchdown pass to Robert Tonyan for his first score in nearly 13 months and two catches for 45 yards for Jimmy Graham.

By the time all that happened, the Packers receivers had yet to touch the football.

In fact, it wasn't until the play right before the two-minute warning when Adams caught his first ball.

However, like much of the Packers' offense this season, it wasn't consistent. Tonyan never caught another pass, and Graham caught just one more for 4 yards.

And then there was the reincarnation of what had been a historically bad punt return unit.

Heading into Sunday's game, the Packers had minus-8 yards on punt returns for the season and were in danger of breaking the NFL record for fewest punt return yards in a season (27, by the 1965 Cardinals). Running back Tyler Ervin, claimed off waivers last week from the Jaguars, changed all that.

Ervin's first return with the Packers went for 10 yards -- beating their season-long return by 7 yards. He took the next one 12 yards and the one after that 18 yards. He followed that with an 11-yard return, meaning that in his first game with the Packers, he totaled four punt returns for 51 yards, giving the Packers 43 punt return yards for the season.

However, much like last Sunday's win against the New York Giants, this one was harder than it should have been for a team that reached the 10-win mark for the first time in three seasons, leaving questions about whether the Packers can do much in the playoffs.

Troubling trend: For the second straight week, the Packers faced a losing team from the worst division in football (the NFC East) and waited until the fourth quarter to finish things off. Last Sunday, they led just 17-13 early in the fourth quarter against the two-win Giants before they pulled away to a 31-13 win. This week, it was 17-9 when the Packers went three-and-out and gave the ball back to the three-win Redskins.

Troubling trend II: Despite having plenty of time to throw, Aaron Rodgers managed just 195 yards passing, completing 18 of 28. The lone passing touchdown was Tonyan's in the first quarter, and Rodgers didn't lead another touchdown drive after the first quarter. Although Rodgers completed 64 percent of his passes, he probably should have done more damage considering he averaged 3.5 seconds to throw, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That was his most time in a game he finished over the past four seasons.

Promising trend: Good things happen when Jones touches the football. LaFleur and Rodgers called Jones' number just enough to get him his fourth 100-yard game of the season. With 16 carries for a season-high 134 yards and a touchdown, it was his third 100-yard rushing game of the season to go along with one 100-yard receiving game (Oct. 27 at Kansas City). Jones' 4-yard touchdown run came on an apparent "can" play -- a play where Rodgers "can" change the play at the line of scrimmage. It was Jones' 15th touchdown of the season tied for third most (with Jordy Nelson) in team history. It was his 12th rushing touchdown, which is tied for fifth most in a season in team history.

Promising trend II: More than half of Preston Smith's 11.5 sacks this season have come on third down. He recorded his sixth third-down sack of the season early in the second quarter to end a Washington drive. Za'Darius Smith also has done damage on third downs, recording 4 of his 10 sacks. Kenny Clark also had 1.5 sacks (sharing one with Kyler Fackrell), both on third downs.