The third week of NFL preseason is typically billed as a dress rehearsal for the regular season, with expanded game plans and starters on offense and defense playing into the second half in a last attempt to get things game-ready for Week 1. The final preseason game is then handed over to second and third stringers, giving starters a chance to rest and avoid any kind of injury that could spill into the first week.
On Thursday in Cincinnati, eyes will be carefully examining the extended look at the Packers No. 1 defense and the debut of running back Cedric Benson. But a major focus will again turn to backup Graham Harrell, who may have his most important snaps of his short NFL career coming in the second half.
In house, the Packers have remained steadfast in backing Harrell, who has completed just 52.9 percent of his passes with a passer rating of 55.6 through 17 series this preseason. Nothing about the comments made by coach Mike McCarthy, GM Ted Thompson, offensive coordinator Tom Clements, starter Aaron Rodgers or quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo since last Thursday have indicated that Green Bay is ready to dump Harrell and find another backup option.
But there is increasing pressure from the outside on Green Bay's eventual decision, with everyone from Colt McCoy to Tarvaris Jackson widely seen as better options than Harrell heading into the 2012 season.
The simple reality here might be that the Packers are forced to replace Harrell if the struggles he's had through two weeks continue or are exasperated in the second half Thursday night.
I, for one, still find it very difficult to envision the Packers giving Harrell the axe now. The support has been unwavering, and cutting him before the start of the 2012 would be a major change of heart from up-and-down the organization.
Still, the Packers need to see more from Harrell Thursday. Here's a quick checklist of the things Harrell needs to show in live-game action against the Bengals:
Improved ball placement
Ball placement has undoubtedly been Harrell's biggest fault through two preseason games. His knowledge of the offense is very thorough, and the majority of his drop-backs result in a decision that I would assume McCarthy and his offensive staff agree with. But the read is just one part of the process. Delivering an accurate, on-time throw is another, and Harrell has struggled in that area.
Harrell has simply left a lot of yards on the field with poor ball placement. His arm strength is clearly improved, but it's still not in the realm where he can get away without making pin-point throws. Check the tape for both games: Harrell routinely has receivers open—in NFL terms, where windows are small—but the throws either beat both the receiver and defender (see: overthrow of Andrew Brewer in fourth quarter vs. Browns) or allow the defender a chance to make a play on the football (see: Harrell's first throw vs. Browns, behind D.J. Williams on a slant).
If there's an improvement with his accuracy Thursday, we'll see a quarterback more capable of leading an offense to points. The big question, however: Are Harrell's problems with ball placement a product of the struggles within the rest of the second-team offense, or a problem that is intertwined in his football DNA? The latter would be a much bigger problem.
To be fair, Harrell has been working with receivers such as Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin, Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel—good receivers underneath but not exactly the definitions of a bona fide down-field threat. The fact that Harrell has rarely thrown the football over 15 yards isn't a huge shock.
But to play quarterback in this league, hitting throws beyond the 5-10-yard box is a must. It's very easy to see the Browns' first-team defense press the Packers receivers at the line while playing the safeties a few yards up. Having most of the No. 1 defense on the field was an obvious advantage for Cleveland, but this was a unit that was daring Harrell to throw the football down the field.
On Thursday, Harrell should be willing to take more shots down the field. When he finally started attempting those throws against the Browns, Green Bay embarked on its only scoring drive of the night with Harrell on the field. He needs to show a confidence in hitting throws more advanced than a five-yard out.
Continuing to build pocket presence
From the Family Night scrimmage to Week 2 of the preseason, Harrell has begun to build an increasing awareness in the pocket. Mind you, Harrell is still a long ways off from even approaching what Rodgers or Matt Flynn possess inside and outside the pocket. But getting reps against players wearing different colored jerseys is the only real way to build that internal clock.
Harrell still had problems with it last Thursday, with a couple of roll outs to his right sticking out. On one early, Harrell was late escaping the pocket and then threw short to Williams in the flat. On the next, Harrell was caught from behind in the end zone and was called for a safety when his attempt went just a yard or two out of the endzone.
There were positives though, too.
Harrell will never be the athlete that Rodgers or Flynn are, but he did step up in the pocket a couple of times to deliver throws or scramble. Given how poorly the second-team offensive line has played, it can only be expected that Harrell will need to manipulate the pocket to deliver throws Thursday.
Overall, I'm not sure what more Harrell can show on the poor-side Thursday to warrant getting cut. There are obvious faults, and if struggles again, one can only imagine why. We aren't likely to learn anything about Harrell that is negative and new against the Bengals. If the Packers do cut Harrell at some point, it will be for the same reasons we've discussed in the past.
But he can begin to rebuild some of the confidence he's shattered within the fan base with a better performance against the Bengals. This staff is also probably dying for things to point to for evidence in keeping Harrell. Even slight improvements in the three things listed above should help do the trick.