It’s been a long time coming, but we’re here. Green Bay Packers football is back.
Yes it’s only the preseason opener, but after a long offseason and a few weeks of the Packers playing against the Packers in training camp the Green and Gold finally get to face off against someone in a uniform of a different color.
Tonight the Packers face off against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium in the first of four exhibition games. Last season, the Packers beat the Chargers 45-38 in Week 9 to move to 8-0 on the year. The Packers nearly blew the game in the fourth quarter but hung on for the win.
With starters for both teams only expected to see only a few series of action, this is a game in which the second and third string units get a chance to shine and prove that they belong on the roster when the regular season kicks off in earnest on September 9.
The Packers face a plethora of questions as they begin to shape their opening day roster. Will they keep six wide receivers? How about the tight ends? Who will be starting at cornerback opposite Tramon Williams with Charles Woodson now at safety in the base defense? Will the pass rush be improved?
Those questions and more have been at the forefront of Packer fans’ minds all offseason and tonight’s game is only the first small step towards answering them.
Here are some things to watch as the Packers open the 2012 preseason:
The corner battle: Many a fan shuddered when the Packers released their initial depth chart and showed Jarrett Bush as the starter opposite Williams. Bush is known as a decent special teams player but has been shaky to say the least in pass protection. After Sam Shields’ well documented struggles in 2011, Bush is the next man up to take a shot at the starting job vacated by Woodson’s move to safety.
The questioning entering this (and the following) preseason game is how Bush will hold up. He faces a challenge in Philip Rivers and his cast of receivers. Even though Vincent Jackson is no longer on the roster, Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal should give Bush a chance to show off his skills in pass coverage.
The same goes for Casey Heyward and Shields. Shields no doubt wants to get the job back that he held the previous season and Heyward has been impressive so far in camp. Shields is out for this game so this is a big opportunity for Heyward.
Is Graham Harrell worthy?: With Matt Flynn having gone to Seattle in free agency, Harrell naturally has moved up to the number two spot behind Aaron Rodgers on the Packers’ quarterback depth chart. Harrell played decently in the preseason last year including leading the Packers to a last minute win against the Colts but once again found himself on the practice squad until late in the regular season.
Harrell has had an up and down camp so far this year. With the Packers adding BJ Coleman in the seventh round pick of this spring’s NFL Draft, Harrell is by no means guaranteed to be the backup behind Rodgers although it seems like it is his to lose.
Rodgers will likely only see a series or two against the Chargers, so this is Harrell’s first big chance to prove he has what it takes to lead the Packers’ offense should something catastrophic happen to Rodgers during the regular season. Harrell’s experience gives him a leg up over the raw Coleman who has shown good arm strength but has struggled with accuracy during camp.
Return of the blitz: It’s no secret that the Packers struggled defensively in 2011. It also became apparent that GM Ted Thompson though the defense held the team back from achieving its ultimate goal last year and took steps in the draft and (GASP!) free agency to address the issue.
The Packers used their first round pick on Nick Perry out of USC to help bring in some pass rush relief for Clay Matthews and then selected Jerel Worthy out of Michigan State in the second round to help the defensive line become more disruptive.
Thompson also signed Anthony Hargrove and Daniel Muir in free agency although Hargrove may or may not be available for half the regular seasons thanks to his supposed role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program. Muir returns to the Packers after spending the past four years in Indianapolis and it’s hoped that he can help keep Raji’s snap count down which may have contributed to The Freezer’s lackluster 2011 campaign after a stellar 2010.
This is perhaps the area most fans will be interested in. If the Packers can restore some semblance of a blitz and even if the offense has a slight drop in point production, then the Packers should be ready to roll in 2012. Against the Chargers, the defense gets a chance to face Rivers who is still considered an elite quarterback despite his worst season in 2011. It should be a good measurement to see where this unit stands exactly as the 2012 regular season creeps closer.
They say no impression is quite like a first impression and if the Packers show enough promise against the Chargers, even in defeat in a meaningless game, then that could go a long way towards quenching the fears some fans have had about the defense since the abrupt conclusion to the 2011 season.
Packers 20, Chargers 17
It says here Rodgers performs well in his one or two series then gives way to Harrell and Coleman who will struggle initially to put up points. The defense shows some baby steps to give some hope to fans that the unit will be improved enough in 2012 that they can hold their own should their high octane offense ever experience an off day like they did against the Giants in the playoffs.
Keep in mind it is only one game and a preseason game at that. No conclusions should be drawn, but some paranoid fans will. The team likely will be rusty so keep this in mind as the preseason goes on. Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers never show their full hands during the four exhibition games.
If something seems off, relax. It’s preseason.
Regardless, Packers football is back. Oh, how we have missed thee.——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke