There was some audible Super Bowl chatter before the Green Bay Packers took on the Indianapolis Colts last August, but once that nationally televised game was in the books, and the Packers had destroyed the Colts to the tune of 59-24, Green Bay was the talk of the NFL and one of the NFC favorites to play in Dallas that coming February.
Fast forward exactly one year to Aug. 26, 2011, and the Packers and Colts will do the same dance Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, a venue where the Packers have never played but that also happens to be the home of Super Bowl XLVI.
The Packers will attempt to acquaint themselves with a building they hope to play in twice this season, but they also want their performance Friday night to be the kind of jumping off point that last season’s dismantling of the Colts was.
The Colts actually raced out to a 17-7 lead at Lambeau Field before quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense took control of the game, scoring three touchdowns in a ten minute span during the second quarter which gave Green Bay a 28-17 half time lead.
Matt Flynn and the backups took over from there, and that’s when the contest really got out of hand. Flynn led the Packers on four scoring drives, including two touchdown passes, and Jason Chery returned a punt 75 yards for the Packers final score. By the time the dust had settled, Green Bay had scored 59 points, a post-merger NFL record for a preseason game.
Following that performance, the Packers’ Super Bowl bandwagon filled in a hurry. Part of that was due to what the Packers accomplished against the Colts on that August night.
Roughly six months later in Dallas, Rodgers and the Packers handsomely rewarded those who stayed on that bandwagon with a Super Bowl win.
Here are some things to watch in Friday’s game:
Getting a look at the running game
The play of the running backs will be and should be the main focus of most Friday night. The Packers have yet to get a good look at any of their four primary backs—Ryan Grant, James Starks, Alex Green and Dimitri Nance—this preseason, mostly due to either injury or snap count, and the clock is ticking on opportunities.
Grant, who restructured his contract a few weeks back, likely has a roster spot guaranteed because of it. Still, he needs all the looks he can get in exhibition games, as he’s trying to work his way back into the flow of the offense. At times this preseason, Grant has appeared hesitant with the ball in his hands. He needs to dissipate those fears with a good showing in Indianapolis.
I wouldn’t expect James Starks to see much time as he continues to recover from an ankle injury. His no-nonsense style of running doesn’t need much for fine-tuning in the first place, and his roster spot is a lock. Starks could see a series or two.
Rookie Alex Green figures to see a good chunk of snaps as he continues to battle for the chance to be the Packers third down back. From what we’ve seen so far, Green has a bright future running the football, and he’s also a threat in the screen game, which he showed last Friday against the Cardinals when he busted off a 25-yard gain. To continue to be considered for that third down role, however, Green needs to show an ability to be assignment-sure in pass protection. Letting Rodgers get hit in passing situations is the quickest way to Mike McCarthy’s bench. His performance in those scenarios Friday is definitely something to consider keeping an eye on.
Speaking of pass protection, second-year back Dimitri Nance has fully embraced that challenge. He’s done so well in that role that it prompted Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to speculate (before news of Grant’s restructuring surfaced, mind you) that Nance and Grant could be battling for the Packers last roster spot given to a running back. It looks like he’s got a tough hill to climb in getting that spot, but he’ll get a chance Friday night—likely in the second half—to prove he’s worth a position on this roster.
Both lines of scrimmage
One point of contention from the Packers first two preseason games has been their lack of ability to win both lines of scrimmage.
The offensive line has obviously had its’ own troubles. They’ve given up a number of sacks while adjusting to a revolving door at left guard. T.J. Lang needs put together a solid performance; it’s as simple as that. He’s emerged as the starter there almost by default after first-round pick Derek Sherrod struggled at a position he’s never played. Sherrod also missed all the OTA’s and mini-camps, which hurt his progression heading into camp.
Besides, Lang has the experience and a natural guard’s build, which should have made this an open and shut case to begin with. It’s concerning to me that just two weeks before the Packers first game of the season, the left guard position still isn’t a spot that beams confidence. The only thing that will stop this offense is the collapse of the offensive line, which is possible with just one weak link in the chain. At this point of the preseason, left guard certainly fits that mold.
The Packers defensive line still has kinks to work out, too. Injuries have hurt this unit, but they’ve been man-handled at times in exhibition play. Against the Cardinals, Beanie Wells ran for nearly 50 yards in the first half. It hasn’t crossed into the realm of “worry,” especially with the injury status of so many, but I’m guessing the Packers want to play much better along the defensive line moving forward. Stopping the run was a problem for them at times last season, too.
If you’re going to put stock into any preseason game—and I hesitate to even say that—it’s the third one you want to look at. Most NFL teams use the third preseason game to put in a game plan that mirrors how they would prepare for a regular season game. They don’t do this for any of the other three exhibitions, and that’s part of the reason why last season’s win over the Colts was semi-important. The Packers went head-to-head with a talented team who had game planned for them all week and beat them soundly. That made their success in that game ever more impressive.
McCarthy said this week that the starters will likely only play the first half, mostly because they need the second to make up for lost time in the evaluation process. So if you’re look for any insights on how the Packers might look to start the season, the first half will be what you should concentrate on.
Packers GM Ted Thompson is going to have some difficult cuts when it comes to the receivers he keeps on roster. In my estimation, the Packers have seven or eight receivers in camp right now who belong on an NFL roster. Obviously, there is the five locks: Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb. There’s also Chastin West, Brett Swain and Tori Gurley, each of whom has shown a capacity to be an effective NFL receiver.
It’s going to be hard for Thompson to keep six receivers, especially considering the decisions he has to make regarding running backs, fullbacks and tight ends. I don’t think he’ll shortchange one of those positions to carry an extra player that already has more talent than it can handle.
Still, those players can continue to make it hard on the Packers front office Friday night. Both Jennings and Cobb might not play, giving the younger guys a golden chance to show they belong.
West, who spent last season on the Packers practice squad, has garnered the most attention, and for good reason. He’s had a terrific camp and everything he’s shown in practice has transferred over to results in preseason games. There’s really not much more you can ask for a guy fighting for a roster spot. If he’s not retained on the Packers’ 53-man roster, he’ll be a quick hook on with another NFL team. There’s simply no chance a guy like him can hide on the Packers practice squad for another season.
Gurley has the kind of size every team wants in an NFL receiver, and he’s looked better as camp has progressed, especially on special teams. He should be a solid candidate for the practice squad if he cleared waivers, which is certainly far from a guarantee.
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2