TEs Cash in with Added Chances

It's been tough sledding without Jermichael Finley. But on a snowy day at Lambeau Field, the tight end group answered a challenge from position coach Jerry Fontenot and had its most productive day as a unit. "I think we definitely stepped up the intensity," said Andrew Quarless.

Without Jermichael Finley the past six games, the Green Bay Packers' tight end passing game has been devoid of any impact, to say the least.

That changed on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

Instead of the Falcons' Tony Gonzalez grabbing the headlines, the Packers' tight ends cashed in, helping quarterback Matt Flynn find the rhythm that was so sorely missing in his last outing at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.

"Just giving them opportunities (was the difference)," said Flynn, who completed 75 percent of his passes in the Packers' one-point comeback victory at snowy Lambeau Field. "Giving them some good, clean routes that they can run that they're real familiar with, and they did a good job of getting open. Andrew (Quarless) played a great game. When you've got teams that are locking on Jordy (Nelson) and things like that, you've got to really utilize your tight ends. So, we gave them a chance to make plays and they did it."

Packers tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot challenged his group — Quarless in particular — this week in meetings, as we told you about in today's "World's Best Preview" story. Fontenot's message was simple but firm — block better at the point of attack, finish plays and, basically, play better overall.

"I think that we're better," Fontenot said on Thursday. "I think that you will see better out of us the next couple weeks."

On Sunday, as Flynn alluded to, it started with opportunities in the passing game. With Quarless leading the way with a game- and career-high six catches, Packers tight ends caught 10 passes in 13 targets, a high since Finley's neck injury Oct. 20 against the Cleveland Browns.

"As a tight end room, as a group, I think this was probably one of our strongest games minus No. 88, who we'd love to have," said Quarless, whose 66 yards were also a career high. "I told him right before he left that I just really wanted to match his intensity. He was playing with such intensity. So, as a tight end room, I think we definitely stepped up the intensity and we played hard."

By comparison, Packers wide receivers caught just one more pass than the tight ends in the same amount of targets against the Falcons. And when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter, Flynn looked to Quarless. The fourth-year tight end's 2-yard touchdown 2:59 into the fourth quarter put the Packers ahead, 22-21, which would turn out to be the final score. They trailed 21-10 at halftime.

Quarless celebrates the go-ahead touchdown. Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports

Quarless, split wide right as part of a four-receiver set on the play, took advantage of his matchup with Falcons' safety Zeke Motta.

"It was a fly route, which in the end zone is a jump ball most of the time," said Quarless. "So, I just think Flynn gave me the opportunity to make a play and that's about it. It was no first read and it didn't matter who was lined up (on me), I believe he just gave me the opportunity and I'm thankful for that.

"He did throw a back-shoulder (pass) and it kind of had to do with (Motta's) leverage, how he was playing. (Motta) was kind of playing inside, so the back shoulder was perfect. And I was kind of thinking that in my head, too. But I run the route to win. You always run the route to win. But I was definitely thinking he could throw the back shoulder."

Backup tight end Ryan Taylor caught his two targets and Brandon Bostick, returning to action after missing the Lions' game because of a concussion, caught two passes for 28 yards, including a 19-yarder with 18 yards coming after the catch.

Helping the tight ends was Flynn predominantly going to the short passing game. Of his 32 pass attempts, just six went longer than 10 or more yards through the air, setting up a more efficient and productive day than the game prior.

"A lot of the times, I wasn't the first read, but one of the things I always tell Flynn and I think about the tight end position is that we're kind of the safety valve sometimes," said Quarless. "You've got to get the ball out fast – Atlanta is a high-pressure team – and I think Flynn definitely took advantage of me and getting the ball out quick with the pressure and stuff like that and played a great game.

"One of the things going into the game was we knew they had younger linebackers. There wasn't too much experience at the linebacker position, so I think that was some of the things that we picked on."

Before Sunday, the Quarless-Bostick-Taylor trio had combined to catch just 57.8 percent of their targets compared to 73.5 percent from Finley. Quarless had caught just 13 of 21 (61.9 percent) over the past six games. His six catches in seven targets against the Falcons bested future Hall of Famer Gonzalez (just three of six), at least for one day.

"I'm just really thankful," said Quarless, reflecting on his second career touchdown catch. "I told my coach (Fontenot), he had an ACL when he played, and one of the things I tell him is that I'm just so blessed to be out here. Every da,y I cherish every moment because I know what I had to go through. So, I'm just thankful to be out here and it's amazing to get my first one of the year."

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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