GREEN BAY – When the Green Bay Packers opened training camp on July 26, they had a number of questions needing answers – despite coming of a season in which they went 15-1 before losing in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. With just a week left in the preseason we take a look at five of those questions again and see how close (or not) they are to answering them. (Our original story can be found here.)
THEN: Is Graham Harrell ready to be Aaron Rodgers backup?
NOW: The answer to this question seems more unsettled than ever. Harrell had a solid debut against the Chargers in San Diego as he recovered from a shaky start to lead the offense to 14 points in nine drives. Since then it’s been rough going.
Over the past two games against the Cleveland Browns at home and the Cincinnati Bengals on the road, Harrell has led 15 drives. Those drives have resulted in more points for the other team (nine points as a result of an interception returned for a touchdown and a safety) than for the Packers. (Six points via two Mason Crosby field goals)
In fairness to Harrell, he’s been running for his life much of the preseason as the backup offensive line has struggled. But even when given time he’s struggled to hit open receivers and has looked indecisive. Harrell says he doesn’t really get a chance to talk to anyone outside the locker room and therefore hasn’t heard fans calling for the team to acquire another quarterback to backup the reigning NFL MVP in Rodgers.
Coach Mike McCarthy said after watching the film from the Bengals game that Harrell has improved each week of the preseason, and Rodgers has also said they have nothing but confidence in him. Still, when a team has Super Bowl expectations like the Packers, it’s a risk to have Harrell as the backup with Rodgers’ history of concussions. That’s especially true when there is likely to be a veteran or two available to sign or acquire via trade.
Harrell has one more chance against the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday to prove he has the ability that the coaches and players apparently believe he does.
THEN: Can the running backs stay healthy and productive?
NOW: Though the worst-case scenario appeared to have played out for the Packers at running back, it may end up being a blessing in disguise. Running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said this offseason that they expected and needed James Starks to play 16 games. He wasn’t able to make it through the first exhibition game. The oft-injured Starks suffered a turf toe injury that’s kept him out of the past two games and is likely to keep him sidelined for another week or more.
Last year’s No. 3 running back, Brandon Saine, had been out since late July with a hamstring injury before returning to practice Sunday, and undrafted free agent Du’ane Bennett has also missed a majority of camp. That left second-year player Alex Green and another undrafted free agent, Marc Tyler, as the lone healthy running backs, and Green has been limited in his snaps as he recovers from last season’s knee injury.
The injuries forced to bring in a veteran – but not the one who seemed most logical. Ryan Grant, who rushed for the fifth most yards (4,016) in franchise history over the past five seasons, was available but the Packers went instead with Cedric Benson, who is talented (three straight 1,000-yard seasons in Cincinnati) but sometimes troubled (four arrests in 4 1/2 years) Cedric Benson. And if Thursday’s game against the Bengals is any indication, they made the right choice. Benson looked like he had fresh legs and plenty left in the tank as he rushed six times for 38 yards.
Whether Starks can stay healthy or not it appears Benson clearly has the most upside and should likely be the starter if he’s able to avoid the fumbling bug that plagued him over the past two seasons. Green has the receiving skills to help on third down but both he and Benson have to prove they can pick up a blitz and keep Rodgers upright.
THEN: Who will be the third cornerback?
NOW: The question really should have asked, “Who will be the No. 2 cornerback opposite Tramon Williams?” And it’s one that probably would have been answered by now if not for an injury.
Jarrett Bush was the starter throughout the offseason and started there in the Cincinnati game. However, prior to getting hurt on special teams in the preseason opener, Davon House seemed to have taken control of the competition. He’s missed the last two games with a shoulder injury that is apparently getting better, but the Packers still haven’t ruled out surgery. If he’s cleared to play, he’ll have to wear a shoulder harness, but even then, he’s probably still Green Bay’s best option.
The guy who held the spot a majority of the past two years, Sam Shields, had a bad start to camp and then got hurt, missing the first two exhibition games. He returned to practice last week and showed in Thursday’s game what the Packers like about him so much but also what makes them pull out their hair in frustration. While he got beat deep twice (although the Bengals were only able to complete one, for a 30-yard gain), he also had an impressive interception that set up a Mason Crosby field goal. Right now, he’s playing with the first team in the dime defense.
The other candidate is rookie Casey Hayward, who’s had his ups and downs as most first-year players do. He got the nod to start against the Browns and struggled at times, including getting completely turned around on a 19-yard completion to Josh Gordon on the second drive of the game. He’s got a tremendous upside but the coaches have indicated he’s got to become more consistent.
THEN: Who’s next at safety?
NOW: The news that Charles Woodson was moving to safety was met with surprise by some, and a shrug of the shoulders by others. Essentially, Woodson will play safety when the team is in their base 3-4 defense, which last year was about 20 to 25 percent of the time. When they are in their other packages he’s still going to be playing in the slot, leaving a job at safety open.
In the offseason M.D. Jennings ran with the first team as last year’s starter, Charlie Peprah, recovered from knee surgery. Then Peprah unceremoniously dumped on the eve of camp when he failed his physical, leaving Jennings to battle rookie Jerron McMillian and practice-squad holdover Anthony Levine.
McMillian looks the part and has lived up to his reputation as a big hitter. McCarthy said McMillian, a fourth-round pick in April’s NFL Draft, had his best day as a Packer against the Browns but questions remain about his coverage skills.
A late addition to the competition has been Levine, who leads the team in tackles this preseason with 11. Levine spent portions of the last two years on the Packers practice squad. He got work with the first-team defense in practice last week and will play a lot in this week’s preseason finale.
None of the three has ever played a regular season snap on defense, which means the other safety, Morgan Burnett, will have to be more vocal in his role as the quarterback of the secondary.
THEN: Is the pass rush better?
NOW: Prior to the Cincinnati game, the answer was clear: No. But on Thursday the pass rush showed signs of life as the Packers harassed the Bengals quarterbacks, especially starter Andy Dalton. While the Packers only recorded two sacks on the night, the rush was constantly in the Cincinnati backfield, led by outside linebackers Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Eric Walden and Dezman Moses. They also got pressure on the inside from B.J. Raji and Jerel Worthy, something the team desperately needed to see.
Admittedly, it’s only one game. But the flashes shown certainly have to have Packers fans sighing just a little bit of relief after the lack of pressure in the first two games.
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.