Packers hope RBs can survive against Browns
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When the Packers play their first home preseason game of the 2012 season Thursday night under the lights of Lambeau Field, it won't be four quarters of Aaron Rodgers and the offense lighting up the scoreboard or many drives with Clay Matthews coming off the edge looking to pick up sacks.
But what will happen is several of the most important questions leading into the regular season will come closer to being answered.
Here are five things to watch when the Cleveland Browns visit for a 7 p.m. game.
1. If no Cedric Benson, then what? Initially, coach Mike McCarthy ruled Benson out from making his Packers preseason debut in this game, but as more injuries continued to strike the running backs this week, the team may be left with no choice but to play Benson. With James Starks (turf toe), Brandon Saine (hamstring) and Du'ane Bennett (knee) already out, starting fullback John Kuhn left Monday's practice with an ankle sprain and is unlikely to be ready for this game. That leaves only Benson, undrafted rookie running back Marc Tyler and undrafted rookie fullback Nic Cooper as fully healthy options in the backfield, with running back Alex Green able to play but on a limited snap count as he continues recovery from a torn ACL last season.
The running backs group is so thin right now that undrafted rookie wide receiver Curenski Gilleylen was taking handoffs during Tuesday's practice.
Due to the rules of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, Benson had to go through two days in just a helmet and shorts before he can take part in a padded practice. The next time the Packers practice will be that third day and Benson's first opportunity to take a hit. That's why McCarthy would prefer that Benson doesn't play against the Browns, but he is being forced to reconsider given the circumstances.
"We talked about potentially playing him in the game Thursday night," McCarthy said Tuesday, contrasting his statement from a day earlier. "I'm not real comfortable with that. He hasn't had the opportunity to practice in pads."
2. This will be a very important game for Graham Harrell: Already 27, Harrell is older than most inexperienced backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Harrell, who was on the Packers' practice squad a year ago, has never attempted a regular-season pass. So, with Green Bay's coaching staff needing to find out very quickly whether it can trust Harrell as Aaron Rodgers' backup, the Packers will use Harrell a lot against the Browns.
"It's very important to see as much of Graham Harrell as we possibly can," McCarthy said Tuesday. "That's where he is in his development. He doesn't have a lot of playing time under his belt. Really, last year is the most significant time he was able to have in a preseason.
"So I feel like he's a little behind as far as opportunities based on his age and how long he's been out of college. Graham's ready, and it's important for him to play."
Harrell was very good in the touchdown-scoring two-minute drive right before halftime in last week's game in San Diego, but in the three series prior to that he was shaky. Harrell will need to show more consistency this week in order for the Packers to stay with him and not begin seriously shopping for a more proven backup quarterback.
3. This is Casey Hayward's chance to become a starter: The right outside cornerback spot was supposed to provide one of the best position battles in Packers training camp with the starting job up for grabs. Jarrett Bush was the Day 1 starter with Sam Shields right behind him, but soon Davon House had surpassed both of them. House then suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason opener and will be out at least for the next two weeks. Shields has remained sidelined with an elbow injury, and Hayward has been suddenly thrust into an opportunity to start as a rookie. Hayward, a second-round pick, has taken most of the first-team snaps since House's injury, but he has far from secured his place as the starter. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said this week that it's still an open competition and that any of the players could still emerge as the frontrunner for the position. But more than likely, Hayward will begin this game with the starters and will have an opportunity to show whether he's ready for such a big responsibility so early in his career.
4. No Desmond Bishop, no problem? D.J. Smith had a very impressive rookie season in 2011, but his only significant opportunities came late in the season when Bishop missed three games with a calf injury. Now, with Bishop's season in jeopardy, Green Bay's coaching staff needs to find out if Smith can still be that effective when playing full time. In training camp practices, Smith has looked like his 2011 self, if not better. But with the Packers in win-now mode and sights set on Super Bowl XLVII, there's no time to wait for Smith if this starting job turns out to be more than he's ready for at this point in his career. However, if he continues to play within himself and makes plays at the rate he has, Smith could transition in seamlessly as a starter in Green Bay's defense.
5. No more injuries: The most important part of this game won't be what happens but what McCarthy hopes doesn't happen. If the Packers leave Lambeau Field after the game with as many healthy players as they did coming in, it's a win for the team. Considering they've had as many as 22 of their 90 training camp players injured and unavailable for recent practices, McCarthy can't afford any more. He has already had to cut practice short on several occasions due to a lack of healthy players.
"I've never seen anything like it," McCarthy said following Sunday's practice. "I've never dealt with numbers like this before, just the number of players missing practice. This has been a very challenging week due to injuries, but obviously, if I knew why it was happening, I would fix it."
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