A good gauge
What better way to see how you measure up than to take on the defending AFC champions. Green Bay’s No. 1 offense has looked razor sharp in the first two games, scoring four touchdowns in barely more than two quarters of play. But the Colts have two bona fide pass rushers in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis who present a threat the Packers haven’t faced yet.
Similarly, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning leads an offense that will provide a supreme test for the Packers’ defense, the same kind of test Green Bay will face when it encounters quarterbacks like Minnesota’s Brett Favre, Dallas’ Tony Romo, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, New England’s Tom Brady and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning, among others, during the regular season.
“No question,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of the magnitude of the challenge a quarterback like Peyton Manning presents. “They’ve been one of the best offenses in the league for a long, long time. As long as they have that quarterback back there, he’s like having a coach out there on the field.”
Injuries have prevented the Packers from fielding their true No. 1 defense thus far in the preseason. The linebacking corps has been particularly banged up, with projected starters Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk on the inside and Clay Matthews and Brad Jones on the outside all missing last week’s game with Seattle. Matthews is still out, but the other three have a chance to play against the Colts as the defensive unit hopes to move closer to full strength.
“That’s the hard thing, because what you’re doing is you’re kind of evaluating individual pieces right now and trying to project what it will be like once it’s all put together,” Capers said. “What my hope is, is we play this game Thursday night and then we can hopefully start to get some continuity in terms of the unit that we feel we’re going to be lining up with against the Eagles (in Week 1).
“That’s kind of the goal, to go out, make improvements Thursday night, play well, and start to really work toward those last two weeks and getting ready for that opener.”
Getting Grant loose
Due mostly to the concussion he sustained on his third carry of the preseason opener vs. Cleveland, Ryan Grant has touched the ball just nine times through two games (eight rushes, one reception). With the starters expected to play at least the first half on Thursday, Grant should get his most extensive work this month before he can pull back and get rested up for the long, 16-game grind of the regular season.
Grant felt fine in the aftermath of his concussion when he took a few hits in Seattle last week. The Packers have been so productive through the air over the first two games (QB Aaron Rodgers is 20-of-24 for 275 yards and 3 TDs) that Grant and the No. 1 offensive line haven’t found any rhythm in the ground game. It would be a good step forward to see that this week.
“I don’t think it would be bad for him to get some reps,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said of Grant. “I think it’s helpful for the backs in the stage of their career that we have here for them to get some reps, get some contact, get knocked down. Is their ball security where it needs to be, (are they) handling the ball in traffic the way it needs to be handled, those type of things. I don’t think it’s bad if he gets some work.”
Neal’s big opportunity
With defensive end Cullen Jenkins considered a long shot to play with a calf strain, second-round draft pick Mike Neal of Purdue may get his most extensive game action with the No. 1 defense. Neal is smart, strong and motivated – everything the Packers would want in a young defensive lineman. With Johnny Jolly suspended for the season, Neal is likely to play a significant role, possibly as the first option up front behind starters Jenkins, Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji.
Neal hasn’t done much statistically in the first two preseason games, registering just one tackle and one quarterback hit. But he should be given ample opportunity to make an impact in this game.
“I think he’s made progress,” Capers said. “Through training camp, I think he has a much better feel of our techniques now than he did when he first came in. He’s a guy that really applies himself. He works hard, and those kind of guys normally get better when they have that kind of attitude and approach. Both in the meeting room and on the practice field, he’s a hard worker.”
Logjam at tight end
Head Coach Mike McCarthy has raved about the team’s depth at tight end, calling it the best group he’s had in his five seasons in Green Bay. Starter Jermichael Finley is a rising star in the league, Donald Lee is having a solid camp as the veteran of the bunch, Spencer Havner plays three ways – on offense at tight end, defense at linebacker, and on special teams – and is valued for his versatility, rookie Andrew Quarless has the body build and raw athletic ability of another Finley, and 2009 practice-squad player Tom Crabtree is a hard-nosed, improving player who’s been noted as the best blocker in the group despite playing through a wrist injury.
But how many tight ends can the Packers keep on the final roster? Three? Four? All five? At this point, nothing can be ruled out, but there’s also no guarantee all can make the team, so they’re out to flash their ability at any point they get.
“Obviously it’s getting close to where we’re going to have to make decisions about who’s going to make the ballclub and who isn’t,” Philbin said. “But we’ll just have to see how it all plays out.”
The nickel corner battle
With cornerback Al Harris’ return date still uncertain, it’s all the more important for the defense to find a reliable third cornerback behind Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. The top candidates thus far in camp have been Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee, but rookie Sam Shields is getting thrown into that mix now, too.
With the Colts featuring one of the deeper receiving corps in the AFC, all the young corners will be challenged considerably on Thursday, and the coaching staff will be watching closely.