The Green Bay Packers (0-2) will look to erase eight mostly forgettable quarters of preseason action Thursday in Cincinnati, as the Bengals (2-0) and Packers matchup in the third and most important preseason game on the exhibition schedule.
The third preseason game is widely viewed around the NFL as a dress rehearsal for the regular season, with expanded game plans and starters on both sides of the ball playing into the second half. If there's any kind of regular-season crystal ball available in the preseason, it's likely each team's third contest.
A season ago, the Packers beat the Indianapolis Colts in the third week, 24-21.
Aaron Rodgers threw for 204 yards and a score on 19-of-23 passing, while Curtis Painter went 11-of-21 for 171 yards and two scores as the Colts led the Packers at the half, 14-10. It seemingly meant little at the time, but it did successfully foreshadow Rodgers' passing dominance and the Packers' inability to play pass defense—both of which showed up in droves during the regular season.
Here are five things you could watch in the Packers' 2012 dress rehearsal:
1. Struggles "passing" by or here to stay?
Pass defense is certainly a broad term to watch for, but it applies in this context. As has been repeated over and over, the Packers gave up more passing yards than any team in NFL history last season. Breakdowns in rushing the passer, coverage in the secondary and tackling receivers resulted in combination of factors that simply overwhelmed Dom Capers' unit.
Thursday's in Cincinnati, the Packers get their first extended chance at showing off the improvements they've made this offseason.
Nick Perry will be joined by the first-team defense for the entire first half and possibly more. He's impressed early in preseason games when working with Clay Matthews on the opposite side. Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels should get ample opportunities to pressure the quarterback in the nickel package. Casey Hayward will likely see a number of snaps opposite Tramon Williams at right cornerback. And Jerron McMillian figures to enter the game early after opening eyes with physical play against the Browns a week ago.
Improvements must go beyond the rookies, too.
How will Tramon Williams fare when lining up against Bengals' emerging receiver A.J. Green? His shoulder is still on the mend, and jamming Green is one of the few ways to keep him contained. Can Williams accomplish that task without hesitation? This defense will continue to struggle if Williams is more 2011 than 2010.
Breakdowns for the first-team defense have continued in two preseason games, so Thursday night will be an important look at how this unit has grown. There needs to be improvement, starting now. Getting run over by Andy Dalton and the Bengals passing offense would be a worrying sign.
2. Harrell's last chance?
I touched on Harrell's situation in-depth earlier Wednesday, so I won't spend a bunch of time on it here.
The confidence the Packers staff has in Harrell is crystal clear, but it's time for Harrell to start rewarding that continued confidence with improved play between the white lines. The 27-year-old simply hasn't been good enough through two preseason games, completing just 52.9 percent of his passes and leading the Packers to 10 points on 17 possessions. Harrell's job likely isn't on the line, and he won't get a ton of reps with Aaron Rodgers playing into the second half, but another shaky performance will keep the criticism coming his way. He needs to show signs during game reps that he's capable of handling the backup duties.
3. Benson's debut
It's almost hard to believe that an August free agent who signed a veteran's minimum deal less than two weeks ago has a legitimate chance to win the starting running back job, but that's where Cedric Benson currently stands.
He's spent the last week or so cramming for this moment—even spending time in the quarterback meetings—and you know he'll have some extra motivation with his old employers on the other sidelines. A good performance running the football between the tackles and protecting on passing downs could cement Benson as the Packers' starting back for Week 1.
While all eyes will be on Benson, don't fall sleep on Alex Green's snaps. Against the Browns, Green looked like an explosive back getting to the edge and a smart, willing pass blocker. His technique needs work, but the tools are all there. If Benson falls on his face, Green could (and should) make a push to start.
4. Starting offensive line
The Packers five starters along the offensive line—Marshall Newhouse, T.J. Lang, Jeff Saturday, Josh Sitton and Bryan Bulaga, from left to right—have just 20 or so plays working together this preseason. Early results were positive against Cleveland, especially with Newhouse's return on the blind side. Thursday night, we should get a long look at the starting five together. This is a group that could be very good in 2012.
Newhouse, the potential wart of the group, looked quicker and stronger in the hands in limited action against the Browns' second-team defensive end last Thursday. The Bengals will likely throw Michael Johnson (6.0 sacks in 2011) and Jamaal Anderson at Newhouse this week, but this is a very talented and deep defensive line overall. It should be a good test across the line for the Packers' starting unit.
5. Jobs on the line
Starting jobs are available at both right corner and safety, so Thursday marks a tremendous opportunity for players at both positions to finally take hold of the openings.
At right corner opposite Williams, Hayward, Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields should all see significant snaps into the second half. The staff has been rotating players there in an effort to find an answer, but no one has truly established himself as the clear leader. Davon House's injured shoulder has made this competition anyone's guess.
Safety is just as wide open, with M.D. Jennings failing to grab the starting job throughout camp and the preseason. Now, Jennings, McMillian and Anthony Levine have even cracks at being the Week 1 starter. Levine is the darkhorse here, and he's begun playing first-team snaps after stacking nice performances together in preseason games.
Thursday night would be an opportune time for one or more players at each position to start separating themselves from the pack. Having a number of "potential" answers doesn't add up to finding that one true starter.