Running game, defense continue to struggle

GREEN BAY, Wis. — If this were a regular-season game, it’s difficult to imagine that the Green Bay Packers would lose at home to the Cleveland Browns, 35-10. But as the preseason continues and coach Mike McCarthy gives extended looks to his second- and third-string players, the Packers are less concerned with wins and more concerned with finding out who will fill out their 53-man roster three weeks from now.

Handing out grades following the Packers’ Thursday night loss:

Passing offense: C-

Aaron Rodgers recovered well from his 2 for 8 performance against San Diego, but Green Bay’s starters played the first three drives and came away with only one touchdown, and that score was on a very short field. Rodgers did record his first touchdown pass of the preseason, connecting with Jordy Nelson from 20 yards out.

The bigger issue is at backup quarterback, where Graham Harrell underwhelmed in his three quarters of play. In Harrell’s first five drives, the Packers totaled just 19 yards and one first down. It took until the ninth series with Harrell at quarterback for Green Bay to score any points, and that was a 41-yard field goal by Mason Crosby.

Harrell threw behind several on-the-run wide receivers and had three interceptions — though one, which was returned for a touchdown, did not count due to a neutral zone infraction by the defense. The interceptions weren’t all Harrell’s fault, as Rodgers mentioned after the game, but Harrell still has much to prove to secure his spot as the Packers’ No. 2 quarterback.

“He had a couple hard-luck interceptions,” Rodgers said of Harrell. “Chased down from the backside on a Hail Mary throw that probably would have had to have been 65 yards — in these conditions, that was difficult as it was, and then not to be able to set his feet … so he didn’t really get a chance to step into that one.

“And then the other one was a play-action keeper, and he had Ryan Taylor open probably for a first down and he fell down. Those are just unfortunate things that happen.”

Rushing offense: C-

Cedric Benson did not make his Packers debut in this game as McCarthy ultimately decided that his new running back needed at least one padded practice first. Green Bay was also without James Starks (turf toe), fullback John Kuhn (ankle), Brandon Saine (hamstring) and Du’ane Bennett (knee). That left just Alex Green, who is still on a limited snap count as he continues to recover from a torn ACL last season, undrafted rookie running back Marc Tyler and undrafted rookie fullback Nic Cooper.

Given all of the absences, this could almost be an incomplete grade, but that is where having depth becomes a major factor. Injuries are a part of the game, and the combination of Green, Tyler and Cooper didn’t get it done against the Browns.

Green had four carries for 16 yards before exiting after the first quarter with the rest of the starters. Tyler really struggled, accumulating just six yards on eight attempts for an average of less than one yard per carry. Cooper was given the ball once and did not gain a yard.

That meant Rodgers’ two scrambles for 24 yards led the Packers in rushing, and Harrell was right behind him with 23 yards on the three times he was chased out of the pocket.

“I think we need to run the ball a little bit better,” Rodgers said. “Graham and I led the team in rushing tonight, 24 for me, 23 for him, and I was looking at the stats, I think we had 22 yards on 16 carries other than the two of us. We’re not going to do the things we want to do on offense if we can’t win the down, as we like to say on those rushing attempts. We need to do a better job of that.”

Rushing defense: C+

Browns running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in this year’s draft, did not play due to recent left knee surgery and Cleveland still ran for 117 yards with Montario Hardesty, Adonis Thomas and former Packer Brandon Jackson. Given the Browns’ significant lead throughout most of the game, they ran 40 times as the clock continued to wind. Green Bay came away with just one tackle for loss, which was by rookie safety Jerron McMillian, who had several big hits in the game. Cleveland’s longest run was only nine yards and the Browns averaged just 2.9 yards per carry, so while it wasn’t a great night stopping the run for Green Bay, it wasn’t all that bad, either.

Passing defense: C

Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden had a decent night while playing the entire first half. Weeden led Cleveland on three drives of at least 36 yards and put up one touchdown and three field goals before halftime. Half of that work came against the Packers’ first-team defense and the other half came against a group of mostly second-string players.

The Packers finished the night with no sacks and no interceptions, two areas they need to do well in this year. Green Bay did have four quarterback hits and three pass deflections, but the combination of Weeden and Colt McCoy were too effective against a Packers defense that has been talking all offseason and training camp about stepping up on that side of the ball.

Special teams: B

Randall Cobb, who will be returning punts and kicks once the regular season begins, did not take any against the Browns. Instead, recently signed wide receiver Andrew Brewer split the opportunities with cornerback Otis Merrill. It was Merrill who had the big gain, going for 60 yards on a kickoff return.

Backup linebacker Robert Francois had two very good tackles on special teams, one on punt coverage and the other on kickoff coverage. When on defense, Francois plays behind A.J. Hawk, but his play on special teams in this game was a very encouraging sign for his being able to contribute in many ways.

Tim Masthay continues booming his punts after signing his long-term extension with Green Bay, and Crosby made a field goal from 42 yards but missed from 54 yards out.

Overall: C-

As Rodgers and McCarthy both pointed out after the game, it is just preseason. Wins and losses don’t matter and will be erased in less than one month. But for the Packers, having more positives to point out would be a good sign. The running game still hasn’t found its way, the first-team offense hasn’t been great yet, the defense allowed 35 points and there are 18 players on Green Bay’s roster out with injuries.

“We need to start transitioning from, ‘it’s preseason,’ to ‘the season is coming and we need to get rolling,'” tight end D.J. Williams said.

Soon, the regular season will prove whether these first two lackluster preseason games actually meant anything whatsoever.

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