It didn’t get much attention this past week because the team’s injury situation has garnered most of the headlines, and because, well, it’s just the preseason.
But for a team that devotes two practice periods per day to handling the football – a new one this year called “ball drills” and another old standby called “ball security” – it certainly didn’t sit well that the Packers turned the ball over four times in their preseason opener, three times via fumble.
After all, it was four turnovers, including three fumbles, that spelled doom last winter and relegated a 15-1 season to one-and-done in the playoffs.
August is not January – everybody knows that – but another sloppy ball-handling effort in game two against Cleveland will call into question whether the players are simply going through the motions in those practice periods. Or maybe there’s simply not enough live contact in training camp for players to get accustomed to hanging onto the ball, and that’s what these preseason games are for.
In any event, aside from the turnovers, here are five other things worth monitoring when the Packers host the Browns on Thursday night at Lambeau Field:
Efficient start – The first-team offense was humming from the get-go last year, but it began 2012 with just 53 yards on three possessions in San Diego, and with two turnovers. A more productive start is a top priority, and the return of left tackle Marshall Newhouse should help, putting the entire starting offensive line on the field in front of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Backup QBs – They’re always a focus in the preseason, and the Packers don’t want to see Graham Harrell go three-and-out six times, as he did last week, including three in a row to start. Also, third-stringer B.J. Coleman got just one series last week, in the two-minute drill to end the game, and he had something going before rookie running back Marc Tyler’s fumble on a screen pass short-circuited the effort. Before that, Coleman completed a pair of 12-yard passes to convert a third down and a fourth down to get the Packers across midfield with 32 seconds left. No doubt Coleman would love to finish a drive this week.
The kicking game – During the Family Night scrimmage, kicker Mason Crosby was testing out the different wind patterns that have resulted from the south end zone expansion, and the results weren’t pretty. Head Coach Mike McCarthy admitted on Tuesday the potential wind issues were probably discussed too much. McCarthy has shown a tendency in the preseason to go for it on fourth down rather than try long field goals, but he may give Crosby the work in the two home games this month.
The young DBs – With cornerback Davon House (shoulder) out indefinitely, rookie Casey Hayward has stepped in with the first unit on defense and a starting job appears his to hold. Also, safety M.D. Jennings has taken most of the snaps in camp with the No. 1 nickel defense, but he had two big errors against the Chargers last week, getting turned around on tight end Antonio Gates’ out-and-up move for a TD pass, and missing a tackle on Vincent Brown’s 27-yard TD catch. Safety Anthony Levine had an interception in San Diego, and he took Jennings’ reps in practice this week when Jennings missed a day for personal reasons. Rookie Jerron McMillian is in the hunt for that spot, too, though McMillian also missed a tackle on Brown’s score. McCarthy said earlier this week that “all spots are wide open,” and it’s no truer than in the secondary.
Health – Having lost inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (knee, hamstring) for perhaps the season and House for at least a while due to injuries against the Chargers, the Packers need to get out of this game healthy. A long injury list has cut practices short and left the Packers razor-thin at running back. Two times this week, McCarthy took to the podium after practice and said he had no new injuries to report. A third such statement on Thursday would seem like a miracle come true.