The third week of the preseason is upon us, which is also known as the “dress rehearsal” for the starters before the real games begin in earnest.
That means we will get to see a full half of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers’ starting offense tonight as they face off against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The starting offense showed some signs of life last week against the Cleveland Browns, but still struggled in some areas.
Same goes for the Packers’ starting defense. Tackling seemed to be improved, but the defense still was swallowed up in coverage by rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. This week, they face off against Andy Dalton and a Bengals offense that struggled at times in the 2011 season.
As for the backups, this is a big game for Graham Harrell. Confidence in him as the backup behind Aaron Rodgers hit an all-time low after the 35-10 loss to the Browns in which Harrell failed to lead the offense to a touchdown in roughly three quarters of action.
Here’s what to look for in tonight’s game:
It’s starting to sound like a broken record, but the Packers must start taking better care of the football.
As a team that is traditionally near the top of the NFL in turnover ratio, the ball handling the Packers have displayed in the preseason has been one of the biggest surprises to the start of the 2012 season. Wide receivers coughing up the ball (here’s looking at you, Randall Cobb) and running backs putting the ball on the ground are inexcusable. Having the best quarterback in the game will get the team nowhere if you can’t hang onto the football.
This game is the last chance the starters have to alleviate fears of many fans. While not all the turnovers have come from the first unit, there have been enough to at least raise some eyebrows.
The debut of Cedric Benson
With James Starks and Brandon Saine not playing in the game, this is a chance for Benson to show he still has what made him a consistent 1,000 yard rusher. Some took the signing of Benson as putting Starks on notice and many believe Benson will supplant Starks as the Packers’ starting running back.
No one should expect Benson to make any big runs right out of the gate. However, a few intermediate runs of 10-20 yards would be a sign of improvement over Starks. Benson is a much more decisive runner and that will be an improvement over the constant happy feet of Starks.
Benson probably won’t play the full game, but it’s the first chance everyone will have to see a rare “big name” Ted Thompson free-agent in action. Throw in that Benson will be facing his former team that cut him loose thanks to off the field trouble, and the Packers have a running back that will be approaching this game like it’s the Super Bowl.
Do or die for Graham Harrell?
Many fans were banging the drum for Thompson to cut his losses with Harrell and trade for a veteran backup, likely either Tarvaris Jackson or Colt McCoy, after a second straight dismal performance from Harrell this preseason.
This, in turn, prompted Rodgers to strongly defend his backup saying he had all the tools and that the team had full confidence in him. Coaches and even Thompson himself followed suit in their defense of Harrell.
It’s definitely a good thing that his teammates have his back, but if Harrell does not show some signs of improvement in the next two games then reality may have to settle in and the Packers will have to look elsewhere for a new backup quarterback. Harrell will get every chance he can in the next two games, but he is going to have to show something and soon.
The Seahawks are currently dangling Jackson in trade to any willing suitor and while the Packers have not necessarily sniffed around the idea yet, you can bet that the idea has at least been raised by someone in the front office.
I’m done predicting scores, as I join the “Who cares? It’s the preseason” crowd.
Some fans were teetering close to the edge after the loss to the Browns and they may just jump should the Packers lose to the Bengals. If you are one of these fans, please keep the following in mind:
Mike McCarthy uses these games as talent evaluation. He said he would like to win the game, but the most important thing for him in the preseason is to see where his players stand and if he has the right people in the starting lineup.
The Packers also are running vanilla playbooks on both offense and defense. There is a lot more not being put on display that is being held for the regular season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
The offense will be fine. The defense, however, needs to show some improvement. If they’re able to shut down the Bengals receivers and can put decent pressure on Dalton, then the Packers should be satisfied.
Two weeks until real football. Who’s ready?——————
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