After nearly seven months of football-less weekends, specifically Green Bay Packers-less football, preseason game number 1 is almost here. Tonight, the Packers host the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field. The two teams squared off last season, with the Packers coming away with the victory. Unless they meet in the postseason, these two teams will not see each other during the regular season.
With all of that said, it’s time to resume our weekly “Keys To the Game”. With this still being preseason, much of the keys will surround players who are either on the roster bubble or who seem poised to take a step forward. Here are this week’s keys:
Running Back Battle
This has been a story line since the team drafted Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in this year’s draft. With incumbents DuJuan Harris, James Starks and Alex Green still on the roster, it became a near certainty that at least one of them would not be with the team when they head to San Francisco for their week one matchup against the 49ers.
Harris came on strong last season after being signed as a free agent and when health concerns kept Green off the field and inconsistency plagued Starks. Prior to Harris’ arrival the Packers run game had been, in a word, anemic. Cedric Benson was signed during training camp and the Packers hoped he could spark some life into the ground game. Benson was sidelined in early October with a foot injury and did not return. Green saw time as the primary back, but was nothing special. Starks had a few flashes, but had another lackluster season, as he did in 2011.
So far in training camp, Lacy and Franklin have impressed. Head coach Mike McCarthy eluded to this in some of his post-practice press conferences. Lacy, aside from the “overweight” photo scandal that came and went, has been what the Packers hoped he would be. A big back who can pick up the tough yards and punch it in near the goal line. As of Tuesday, Lacy was taking reps with the first team and appears to be atop the running back depth chart. He is also showing no signs of any issues with his toe that was surgically fused. He did suffer a bit of a setback with a hamstring injury earlier this week, and likely won’t see action in this week’s game against the Cardinals. Still, this is precautionary and likely will not adversely affect Lacy’s positioning on the depth chart. Franklin is also getting a look as a return man on special teams and should figure into the team’s immediate plans.
With Lacy out and Harris still a few weeks from his training camp debut, this is a crucial opportunity for both Starks and Green. One back that I haven’t mentioned yet is fullback John Kuhn. That is because I believe the Packers will retain Kuhn for at least one more season and see his pass protection as an asset, given some of the shakiness on the offensive line. So back to Green and Starks. Since rumors surfaced that the Packers were attempting to trade Starks during the offseason and then with the drafting of two running backs, Starks has turned it up a notch in training camp. With the added reps that he is getting because of injuries, he seems to be making the most of them. Whether it is enough to stick on the roster remains to be seen. The team has to also weigh in the fact that Starks has had trouble staying healthy for a full season.
Same with Green. Green missed most of his rookie season after suffering an ACL injury and dealt with some issues last season as well. Right now, I am hearing way more about Starks than I am Green so this could become a very difficult decision for the coaching staff during final cut downs.
Bryan Bulaga’s season is officially over. This is a big blow to a Packers offensive line that has struggled to keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers off his back and also in their run blocking. In an effort to shake things up and improve in the pass protection, Bulaga was moved from right tackle to left tackle and right guard Josh Sitton was also moved to the left side. Bulaga’s injury now leaves a question mark at both tackle spots.
Last season, Don Barclay finished as the team’s right tackle when Bulaga was placed on injured reserve with a hip injury. Due to the lack of depth behind Evan Dietrich-Smith at center, Barclay has been given extensive time at the position during training camp. The early reports have not been great in terms of Barclay’s performance at this unfamiliar position so that will be something to watch. The biggest note to make, however, is that Barclay’s name is not being mentioned much in the tackle competition. Barring an unforeseen scenario, the team likely does not plan to use Barclay at tackle.
Derek Sherrod still has not been cleared to return to practice and the longer we wait, the less likely it seems that Sherrod will figure in the team’s immediate plans. It appears that the Packers are more inclined to look at Marshall Newhouse and rookie David Bakhtiari as their top candidates at the tackle spots. Newhouse was average, at best, last season at left tackle and I have not heard anything from training camp that suggests that he has taken a step forward. Bakhtiari has garnered some early attention and appears to be performing well. It seems that the ideal scenario would be to move Newhouse to right tackle and put Bakhtiari on the left side.
While the news that Bakhtiari is progressing well is welcome, it is still a bit unnerving to see a rookie protecting Rodgers’ blind side with the 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens coming early in the season. I’ll be watching Bakhtiari closely and hope to hear about and see him progress as much as he can over the next four weeks. While starters are not expected to play much in this week’s game, expect to see quite a bit of Bakhtiari. The coaching staff needs as much of a sample as they can get to evaluate his progression and readiness to play with the first unit.
Can BJ Coleman Salvage Himself?
Many thought Coleman would take over the backup quarterback spot from Graham Harrell. With the success that McCarthy has had in developing Rodgers and Matt Flynn, hopes were high that Coleman would make a jump from his rookie season to year two. That has not happened. Coleman continues to be erratic during live team periods and is still exercising poor judgment. McCarthy went so far as to say that he has not progressed as they had hoped. That lack of progression was what likely brought on the team’s signing of Vince Young earlier this week.
Coleman is on a short leash and will have to elevate his game play significantly to land a roster spot, let alone be Rodgers’ primary backup. Coleman wasn’t especially sharp during the Family Night scrimmage last week but he will see extensive time over the next two preseason games. He needs to play near-flawless ball to get back into the conversation and the good graces of the coaching staff. Should Rodgers go down at any point during the season, the Packers have enough talent to remain competitive and provided that the quarterback position can at least be adequate. Right now, Coleman doesn’t have many in Green Bay very confident that he can offer even that.
Crying Kicking Game
Perhaps a little preseason humor with the header, but this could become a situation that is not so funny. Placekicker Mason Crosby’s struggles have carried over from the 2012 season to the 2013 preseason. After posting a league-low conversion percentage last season, Crosby has not been able to right the ship so far during training camp. The team brought in Giorgio “Sergio” Tavecchio to compete with Crosby, but Tavecchio’s leg strength is less-than-ideal for a kicker who would potentially line up for a 50-yard try in December at Lambeau Field. Crosby had another dismal performance during the Family Night scrimmage and, once again, has all of Green Bay in a buzz over what to do with him.
Crosby would represent over $1 million in “dead money” if he were to be cut from the team’s roster in camp. That alone may push the team to grit their teeth and keep him another season. Tavecchio, while more effective, just does not strike many as the better option. Punter Tim Masthay has been kicking off in special teams drills during camp and is said to have as strong of a leg as does Crosby. Still, Crosby’s combination of leg strength and experience kicking at Lambeau may be his saving grace.
As I mentioned earlier this week, the team would have some options on the free agent market if they chose to pursue that avenue. Kickers can still perform at a high level well into their late 30’s and early 40’s. Still, I expect McCarthy to give Crosby every last ounce of a chance to redeem himself. In my eyes, he needs to be perfect on every attempt during the preseason, but that’s just me.
Welcome back, live football, we have missed you! Enjoy the game!
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: