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Packers-Chiefs: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams:  The Green Bay Packers (1-2) vs. the Kansas City Chiefs (1-2).

The time:  6 p.m. CDT Thursday.

The place:  Lambeau Field, Green Bay.

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 CB Davon House (shoulder), RB James Starks (toe), LT Andrew Datko (concussion), OT Derek Sherrod (leg), TE Tom Crabtree (shoulder), TE D.J. Williams (ankle), ILB Jamari Lattimore (leg), ILB Robert Francois (hamstring) and WR Curenski Gilleylen (quadriceps). DT Ryan Pickett (calf) and TE Ryan Taylor (chest) may not play. RB Brandon Saine (hamstring), who returned to practice this week, seems likely to play.

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Young hearts be free tonight:  While GM Ted Thompson and the coaching staff will tell you that it’s all about the body of work when it comes to making roster decisions, some of the youngsters fighting for spots at the bottom of the 53-man roster can certainly help themselves with attention-grabbing performances in the finale. Vic So’oto, for example, did just that last year, when he parlayed a strong showing in the third preseason game at Indianapolis into a downright dominating performance against the Chiefs’ starters in the finale.

“I know what they’re going through,” said Thompson, who during his 10-year NFL career was constantly fighting to make the roster in Houston. ”The NFL is a hard business. We talk about that all the time. It’s supposed to be hard and this will be hard, and it should be hard to make a team. You should be proud to make an NFL roster and know it’s not an easy thing.”

Packers coach Mike McCarthy, meanwhile, pointed out that the game is not just vital to players’ chances of making the Packers’ roster, but of being picked up elsewhere.

“This is it. Everybody’s watching, not just the Green Bay Packers,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s important to put initial targets in front of your football team every single day and put a long-term target in front of them. They understand how important this last game is. You want to have good film every time you go out on the field. That’s practice and game alike. It’s an opportunity to play in front of a home crowd. We’re looking forward to that. We want to have a better performance than last time we stepped out there two weeks ago. So, our guys are anxious for this opportunity.”

What a ripoff:  On the flip side, there may not be a bigger waste of a sporting consumer’s hard-earned cash than the preseason finale, where very few teams use it as a dress rehearsal for the regular-season opener. One team that did, the Chiefs last year, paid a heavy price with some key injuries. With Todd Haley having been replaced last season by then-defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, don’t look for the Chiefs to take the same approach.

The Packers, meanwhile, won’t trot their starters out there for very long, if at all. Last year, a whopping 16 players didn’t suit up for the preseason finale, with four healthy scratches: Cornerback Charles Woodson, linebackers Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk and safety Nick Collins. In addition, 12 others sat out because of varying degrees of relatively minor injury, including the team’s top five wide receivers of Donald Driver (ankle), Greg Jennings (bruised knee), Randall Cobb (bruised knees), James Jones (bruised knee) and Jordy Nelson (bruised knee). Tight ends Jermichael Finley (sprained ankle) and Ryan Taylor (hip) also didn’t play. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who did not dress for the 2010 preseason finale, played one series.

“I always wait until the full week of work is completed, but my initial thought is to go with the format we’ve used in the past. The starters will play a very limited time in the first quarter,” McCarthy said during the week. “It won’t be exactly 11 guys playing one series or anything like that. We’ll play the starting group not very long and then we’ll evaluate everybody else.”

On the corner, a safety concern:   McCarthy insists that the battles for the No. 2 cornerback spot and the safety spot in the nickel and dime units remain up for grabs. But based on the way the Packers practiced all week, it certainly appears that, barring total meltdowns, Jarrett Bush will be starting at Charles Woodson’s old cornerback spot, and when Woodson moves from safety in the base defense to the nickel/slot corner spot in sub packages, rookie fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian will be the safety. (In addition, Sam Shields appears to be the leading candidate for the dime cornerback job.)

It’s up to Bush and McMillian to solidify themselves – and their competition to force the coaches to reconsider – in advance of the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against San Francisco.

Ask defensive coordinator Dom Capers what he likes about each player, and the answer is the same: Versatility. “We’ve played him (McMillian) not only at safety but up in the dime position. We think he has those kind of abilities,” Capers said. “The guy’s value, if he can be a multi-position player, (goes up). The classic example of that is Charles and how many different positions Charles has played for us. When you start figuring your game-day roster, if a guy can play two or three spots now, that really helps you. Because with as many different personnel groups as we use, you don’t want to get knocked out of a personnel group just because you lose on guy. To me, that’s the thing I’ve been most pleased with with Jerron, that I feel comfortable. He’s got good reps at both positions. He’s going to have to be able to play two, three positions for us.”

And Bush? “I think the fact that he’s been here in the system and all that has certainly benefitted him,” Capers replied. “I think he’s had a very good camp. He’s familiar with things, you guys have watched JB, he just goes out and plays the same way, whether it’s a game or a practice. So he’s had a good camp, and you know, he can play two or three different positions. So that increases his value. I think he’s more ready to play now that what he has been. The only thing I can go off of is what I’ve seen, and I think he’s right in there in terms of the coverage standpoint with the rest of the guys we put out there.

Catching on:  Tom Clements makes it sound so easy. If Tori Gurley, Diondre Borel or any other young wideout wants to convince the Packers that they should keep a sixth wide receiver, what will it take? “They just have to know what they’re doing, do it as well as they can and make plays when they have the opportunity. And play hard,” Clements replied. “If they do that, we’ll have a good evaluation of them.”

In reality, that’s a tall order. Both Gurley and Borel, who each turned down offers from rivals last season to leave the Packers’ practice squad to join their 53-man rosters, started camp slow and then were sidelined by groin injuries. Since then, neither player appears to have done enough to justify the unprecedented step of keeping another wideout. While there’s a good chance one or both would be claimed if the Packers waived him, this is the last chance for Gurley or Borel to state his case.

“Make a statement. Define yourself. Answer a question that’s out there about you,” McCarthy said. “Is it consistency? Is it big-play ability? There’s different categories you use when you grade and evaluate players and obviously some players do things better than others. And if you can show improvement and show growth and more value, that’s what you look for in these game environments.”

Special deliveries:  As an old special teams guy himself, Thompson has enjoyed watching the team’s coverage and return units improve the past two years. Where does that improvement come from? In large part, the bottom of the roster – the guys battling for the final spots in advance of Friday’s cuts.

“It’s a huge part of the game. Our staff and our players take it seriously and do a really good job,” Thompson said of special teams. “When we start out building the team, we talk about that; every draft pick, we talk about that; the body types at the different positions, we talk about that. A lot goes into it. Obviously, you have to have the specialists themselves that are pretty good, and we think we have pretty good specialists.”

– Jason Wilde