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Packers-Bengals: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams:  The Green Bay Packers (0-2) vs. the Cincinnati Bengals (2-0).

The time:  6 p.m. CDT Thursday.

The place:  Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati.

The TV coverage:  WTMJ (Ch. 4) in Milwaukee, WGBA (Ch. 26) in Green Bay and WKOW (Ch. 27) in Madison.

The announcers: Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon, with Trenni Kusnierek reporting from the sidelines.

The Packers injury report:  Not expected to play for the Packers are WR Shaky Smithson (ankle), RB Du’ane Bennett (knee), CB Davon House (shoulder), RB Brandon Saine (hamstring), FB Jon Hoese (hamstring), RB James Starks (toe), ILB Desmond Bishop (hamstring), G Ray Dominguez (ankle) and LT Andrew Datko (concussion). In addition, the four players who still haven’t passed their physicals remain sidelined: DE Johnny Jones (knee), TE Andrew Quarless (knee), OT Derek Sherrod (leg) and OLB Frank Zombo (hamstring). TEs D.J. Williams (ankle) and DeMarco Cosby (hamstring) are questionable. WR Greg Jennings (concussion), TE Jermichael Finley (quadriceps) and CB Sam Shields (elbow) are expected to play after missing the first two exhibition games with injuries.

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Harrell in peril?:  Even though he’s gotten votes of confidence – of varying enthusiasm levels – from starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, head coach Mike McCarthy, quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Ted Thompson, backup quarterback Graham Harrell still has to do better. Even factoring in the less-than-stellar work of those around him, Harrell enters Thursday night’s third preseason game at Cincinnati having completed 27 of 51 passes (52.9 percent) for 235 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a 55.6 passer rating. Rodgers, meanwhile, is 8 for 19 for 75 yards with a touchdown and an interception for a 49.2 rating.

“You see why some of the plays turned out the way they turned out,” McAdoo said of the film review of Harrell’s first two games. “You’d like to see Graham come out and start faster and you’d like to see him make the throw to Brewer, but there are some things that may have been out of his control. I thought he did a good job of managing the game. There’s a lot of personnel that comes in and out. I thought he did a good job of trying to keep us in good plays and not run the ball into bad looks or having free hitters in protections and things like that. We’ll leave it at that.”

Inside job:  Mike Trgovac says he’s fine with the way the competition on his defensive line has developed during training camp, but the fact remains that his guys have yet to show significant progress on game days. Rookie second-round pick Jerel Worthy has not impressed during his first two exhibition appearances while fourth-round pick Mike Daniels seems to still be getting his bearings after a knee/groin injury sidelined him. As a result, the interior pass rush the Packers needed has not yet shown itself. The Packers, who were dead last in sack percentage last season, would love nothing more than to see their defense get after Bengals starter Andy Dalton, and defensive coordinator Dom Capers believes he has the line guys to do it.

“I think we’ve got more options. I really do,” Capers said. “For us, scheme-wise, we try to get pass rush from all three levels. Obviously the linebackers have to factor in big for us because when we go to third down, those outside ‘backers are defensive ends for us. But yeah, I think we’re going to have more options inside. Last year, we had three 345-, 350-pound guys. But I think guys could have more defined roles for us, within as many different packages as we use. We’re still experimenting with that. You don’t know until you start to see how well things work. But I think there are options.

Security risk?:  The focus will be on Cedric Benson, and rightfully so. The Packers’ new running back not only is facing his former team and making his debut with his new ballclub, he also could be the team’s starting running back when the regular season opens. But Benson has something else he must prove: He must show he can hold onto the football after coughing up 12 fumbles (seven lost) over the past two seasons.

“We do a lot of the drill work even before practice starts, going through the gauntlet, doing team strip drills. You see it daily,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “Him getting into that and just translating that into the game and practice – it’s an emphasis. (We’d) rather you miss a cut than fumble the ball making a great cut. Obviously it’s something everybody talks to him right now – I’ve been on him, John Kuhn has talked to him, Aaron’s mentioned it a few times, so we’re going to continue to go in that direction until we feel like he’s carrying it high and tight every time.”

I’m a loser, baby:  Not since 1993 have the Packers started a preseason 0-3, and if you thought the Chicken Little crowd was worried about the team losing back-to-back exhibitions, imagine if they lose another one. The fact of the matter is, preseason success or failure mean nothing. The Indianapolis Colts, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, went an abysmal 4-22 in preseason games from 2005 through 2010. Then they went 75-21 in the regular season over that same time frame. The Ray Rhodes-led 1999 Packers went 4-0 in preseason play – and then went 8-8 when the games started to count.

“We’re trying to hit targets, hit some new plays, new thoughts we want to get in, hit some situational stuff you might not work on in practice, some backed-up situations, some crowd noise when you play on the road,” Rodgers said, rattling off his to-do list. “Now, if you’re playing well, you probably are going to win some preseason games. If you’re scoring on offense, your first-team offense is scoring … especially this game, this is the game where the first-team offense is going to play a half. But I think our fans shouldn’t be too worried about the win-loss record in the preseason.”

Backward defensive backfield:  Granted, it’s not the offensive line, where coaches always want to get their starting five together before the third preseason game so continuity can develop in time for the games to count. But as a team that plays upward of 75 percent of their snaps in sub packages with five and six defensive backs on the field, it’s remarkable that the Packers enter the third preseason game with two key secondary positions up for grabs: The No. 2 cornerback job and the safety who comes into the game when Charles Woodson, the safety in the base defense, moves into the slot. Against the Bengals, Casey Hayward, Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields will get looks at corner, while M.D. Jennings, Anthony Levine and Jerron McMillian are all in the mix at safety.

“I think it’s still wide open,” Capers confessed. “It’s kind of interesting – about the time a guy makes a move … We felt real good about the way Davon House played in San Diego, played 40 plays and played pretty well, and then has the shoulder. Obviously Sam with the elbow hasn’t been out there. We’ve been working Casey Hayward and Jarrett Bush out there … I think it’s still wide open.”

– Jason Wilde

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