GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Packers are 0-2 so far this preseason and have yet to look very good in many areas. This week, however, when the team travels to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals, Green Bay’s starters will see much more action than they have in preseason games to this point.
Picking up a win is not the main goal, but a strong performance is needed from the Packers on offense and defense with only 17 days until the regular season begins.
Here are five things to watch for in this game:
1. Improvement from the starting offense: Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ high-powered offensive starting unit have only been on the field for six drives so far this preseason. In Cincinnati, however, the first-team offense will likely play the entire first half. Thus far, the starters have hardly looked like the group that led the NFL in scoring last season. They’ve scored just one touchdown — Rodgers to Jordy Nelson on a short field — while committing three turnovers, including two fumbles. The ball security is the biggest issue. Rodgers and James Starks coughed one up on a handoff exchange in the first preseason game and Randall Cobb followed it up a week later by getting stripped along the sideline after a completed pass.
“We turned the damn ball over too much,” coach Mike McCarthy said after the second preseason loss. “I don’t care if it’s preseason, scrimmage, practice, it’s something that needs to stop. There’s no excuse for that. As much as we train taking care of the football and emphasize it, it’s important that the things you do every single day in your practice structure show up on game days. We’ve got to take care of the football.”
This game will be a great opportunity for the starting offense to show whether it’s ready for the regular season. Next week, in the preseason finale, Rodgers may not play at all. So this is likely going to be the final non-practice competition that the starting offense will face before the San Francisco 49ers travel to Lambeau Field for a game that really counts on Sept. 9.
2. Can Jarrett Bush hang on to the starting cornerback spot? Training camp started with Jarrett Bush as the starter at right outside cornerback opposite Tramon Williams. Most players in the secondary felt it was mostly a competition between Bush and Sam Shields, with the less-experienced Davon House and Casey Hayward maybe getting a shot at it. But as Bush failed to wow the coaching staff in the first week of practice, House stepped in and performed very well. House was solid to the point where he may have won the job. Unfortunately for him, House suffered a shoulder injury in the first preseason game that has kept him out ever since. House is at least one more week away from finding out whether his injured shoulder will require surgery or if he’ll be able to play with a harness on. Either way, it’s not an ideal situation. Shields, meanwhile, had an elbow injury and missed more than a week of practice. Shields had struggled prior to missing time, so his opportunity to become a starter to begin this season are very slim now. Hayward, meanwhile, has had the ups and downs that would be expected from a rookie. Hayward did start the second preseason game ahead of Bush, but three days later in practice, it was Bush back on the field with the starters.
This game against the Bengals will be key in whether Bush, a seventh-year veteran who’s never started before in his career, has what it takes to hang with an opposing team’s top two wide receivers on the outside.
3. Three safeties battling for one starting spot: When the Packers are in their base 3-4 defensive packages, the starting safeties are Morgan Burnett and converted cornerback Charles Woodson. However, Green Bay will far more frequently be in its nickel defense, in which case Woodson slides into the slot cornerback spot and a different safety is needed next to Burnett. To begin training camp, it was M.D. Jennings. However, Jennings hasn’t done much to separate himself from those close behind, including Anthony Levin and rookie Jerron McMillian. McMillian had a terrific performance in the Packers’ second preseason game and earned himself playing time with the starters in practice soon after. Earlier this week, Levine saw some action with the starters, as well. McMillian may have an edge in this competition because he is the one guy who Green Bay’s coaching staff can depend on to make solid tackles one on one in the open field. But in order for McMillian to beat out Jennings and Levine, he’ll need to continue to play consistently, a factor that weighs heavily in McCarthy’s assessments.
4. Cedric Benson is back in Cincinnati: For the first time since 2008, Benson will be on the field playing for a team other than the Bengals. Coincidentally, Benson’s debut with the Packers will come against his former team in the city that he called home for the past three seasons. With Starks out with turf toe and Brandon Saine out with a hamstring injury, the bulk of the carries will go to Benson and Alex Green. It’s unlikely that McCarthy will have Green begin this season as the starter, simply because Green is still on a limited snap count as he continues to work his way back from a torn ACL that ended his rookie season early in 2011. If Benson can put together consistent four-to-five-yard runs and do a good job in pass protection, this recent signing by general manager Ted Thompson could prove to be a huge factor in the Packers’ success this season. Benson will be extra motivated in this game, too, as he faces off against the team who didn’t think three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons was enough to warrant a contract extension this past offseason. Considering the lack of health of the running backs in Green Bay, Benson could go from unsigned free agent to regular-season starter in less than one month’s time, especially if he has a good game in Cincinnati.
5. One more chance for Graham Harrell? Following his struggles in the Packers’ home preseason game last week against the Cleveland Browns, Harrell became the center of attention for the wrong reasons. His three interceptions — one nullified by defensive offsides — were not all his fault and the second-string offensive line didn’t give him much time to work in the pocket, but Harrell looked rushed even when he had a chance. Clearly an injury to Rodgers would be a devastating setback for Green Bay, but having a capable backup can be the difference between still mustering a decent season and completely falling apart. Think back to the 2011 Chicago Bears for an example of the latter. Earlier this week, Rodgers, McCarthy and Thompson all backed Harrell, saying there was plenty of confidence throughout the organization that the Packers don’t need to explore the trade market for a veteran or more game-ready No. 2 quarterback. Though Harrell won’t have as many snaps to prove himself this week as he has the past two, a couple solid drives could go a long way in the front office making a final decision before the regular season begins.