Packers-Browns: 5 things to watch

Packers-Browns: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS
The teams:
The Green Bay Packers (0-1) vs. the Cleveland Browns (1-0).

The time: 7 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 WR Shaky Smithson (ankle), WR Diondre Borel (groin), RB Du’ane Bennett (knee), CB Davon House (shoulder), RB Brandon Saine (hamstring), FB Jon Hoese (hamstring), CB Sam Shields (elbow), RB James Starks (toe), ILB Desmond Bishop (hamstring), G Ray Dominguez (ankle), WR Greg Jennings (concussion), TE Jermichael Finley (quadriceps) and. 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). DE Mike Daniels (knee/groin) was back practicing. LT Marshall Newhouse (concussion), TE Ryan Taylor (concussion) and WR Tori Gurley (groin) are expected to play after missing last week’s opener with injuries.

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

No. 1 offense, take 2: Even without wide receiver Greg Jennings, tight end Jermichael Finley and left tackle Marshall Newhouse last week, the level of ineptitude from the Packers first-string offense was striking. NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers completed just 2 of 8 passes for 16 yards and was intercepted when backup left tackle Herb Taylor allowed Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram a free shot on him, and starting running back James Starks fumbled a handoff exchange with Rodgers for a second turnover.

“We came out, it looked like we weren’t ready to play, for whatever reason,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said on Tuesday afternoon. “The first 15 plays, we made a number of errors – two turnovers plus three other errors. In 15 plays, that’s not good. If you’re a good team, that’s hard to overcome. We didn’t play well, they know that, and they’ve got to play better.”

To that end, Rodgers figures to play at least three series against the Browns, and given the state of the running backs, he may throw on nearly every down. With Newhouse back, and despite Jennings and Finley missing another game, Clements expects improvement and believes Rodgers will benefit from the work.

“Everyone who is a starter, you try to regulate it, but they need to get back in game shape, and you can’t do that in practice,” Clements said. “And by game shape, I don’t mean just physically. I mean mentally, too. How to react. He’s going to react a certain way in practice, react quickly, but you’ve got to do it even more quickly in the game. It’s a different animal, practice vs. game. You need it. I don’t think anyone thinks about (risk). We realize with all the starters, they have to play a certain amount of time to get ready. You want to hit the ground running.”

Green machine: The depletion of the Packers’ running backs has not been good for coach Mike McCarthy’s disposition. When fullback John Kuhn suffered an ankle injury late in practice on Monday, McCarthy couldn’t believe it. As a result of Kuhn’s injury, only three running backs – halfbacks Alex Green and Marc Tyler, and fullback Nic Cooper – will suit up if McCarthy doesn’t change his mind at the last minute and let newly signed Cedric Benson on the field.

That means Green, despite having been on a limited snap count as he comes back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, could see a fair amount of action. Last week, he had three carries for 3 yards; he should get at least a little more work Thursday night.

“I haven’t been told anything as far as my workload, things like that. I know I’m starting the game off, I know I’ll still be kind of limited rep count, I understand that. That’s not a problem for me, but as far as snaps or carries, I’m really not sure,” Green said. “Just the nature of being competitive, you want to get out there and get all the snaps, make all the plays. At the end of the day, I understand the whole process of not rushing it, it’s still preseason, I came back a month and a half early – I understand I need to sit out and let it heal and not push it too much. Whatever the plan may be, I’ll be fine.”

The same cannot be said for the running game as a whole, as it’s so dire that Curenski Gilleylen, a former running back in college at Nebraska who’s converted to wide receiver, was taking running back snaps this week in practice – although Cooper would be more likely to get carries first.

“Anybody that can carry it right now is up,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “He came out of Nebraska as a running back, so he has some ability and has taken handoffs. In an emergency — if a shoelace breaks or something like that, we can get him in there.”

Marshall, Marshall, Marshall: Marshall Newhouse had his critics last season, but his importance to the Packers’ offense could not be understated after last week’s debacle at left tackle. Herb Taylor was clearly over his skis as a starter, and with Derek Sherrod yet to practice – and looking more and more like a PUP candidate – the Packers need Newhouse to be healthy and effective. He practiced all week in the wake of missing 10 days with a concussion, and the hope among the Packers coaches is that he’s back to 100 percent – and will stay there.

Not only is Newhouse’s presence vital for the safety of Rodgers, but also for continuity. The Packers came into camp set with their five starters on the line, unlike past years, where McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen were hoping to have it settled entering the third preseason game. The advantage created by having the group set to go slips away if the fivesome isn’t together. Newhouse’s return will help continuity, with left guard T.J. Lang and the unit as a whole.

“He is important,” Campen said. “He looks good. To get the five out there, it’s going to be fun to watch and see them build off it. It’s good for T.J., too, because he’s had a couple different tackles over there going around and around. (Newhouse) looks sharp, quick. Of course, the guys were busing his chops about fresh legs. So let’s get those fresh legs running.”

Roll out the Harrell: Graham Harrell can expect another long night of work, as he strives to prove himself worthy of the No. 2 job behind the league MVP. There were some renewed rumblings in the national media this week that the Packers could be interested in deposed Browns starter Colt McCoy in a trade, but unless the coaching staff and personnel staff are both putting forth Oscar-worthy performances, they legitimately like Harrell.

“I think it’s very important to see as much of Graham Harrell as we possibly can. That’s where he is in his development. He doesn’t have a lot of playing time under his belt,” McCarthy said. “. Really last year is the most significant time he was able to have in a preseason. So I feel like he’s a little behind as far as opportunities based on his age and how long he’s been out of college. … Graham’s ready and it’s important for him to play.”

Harrell started slowly against San Diego, completing just 2 of 7 passes for 4 yards, but in the 2-minute drill, he directed an eight-play, 70-yard touchdown drive, completing 5 of 6 passes for 68 yards, including a 3-yard TD strike to Randall Cobb. After another offensive lull with the backups, Harrell engineered another touchdown drive at the end of the third quarter, overcoming a second-and-17 situation during a 14-play, 68-yard drive that ended in Marc Tyler’s 1-yard touchdown, although the go-ahead 2-point conversion failed.

“He’s becoming an expert in the offense, which is important for the game to really slow down for you, so he’s understanding that better,” Rodgers said. “I think, really from the first day he got here, he’s throwing the ball a lot better than probably most of us expected and he’s still throwing the ball really well. He just understands the offense better, so he’s not really thinking as much. He’s doing better with the protection schemes. He made a great protection adjustment in the game and hit Cobb down the middle on the big play there in that 2-minute drive. When you see a play like that, you realize he’s come a long way.”

Hayward field: With Davon House (shoulder) and Sam Shields (elbow) out with injuries, what had been a fascinating four-man race for the No. 2 cornerback job vacated by Charles Woodson (now at safety) opposite Tramon Williams is now a two-man battle, at least for now. House is hoping he only misses 2 to 3 weeks, while Shields is hoping to return to action next week. In the meantime, rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward saw extensive snaps in practice during the week and will get the nod Thursday against the Browns.

“When one guy goes down, the next guy has the opportunity to come in and show what they can do. That’s how jobs are won and lost in the NFL,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “Everybody in the room who’s still healthy, still practicing has the opportunity to show what they can against a higher level of competition.”

That said, Whitt isn’t giving the gig to Hayward. Not by a longshot.

“He’s in the mix. He has to show that he can go in there and play with the 1s, but it’s a great opportunity for him because he’s a very confident young man,” Whitt said. “He thinks he can do it, and now it’s on his shoulders.”

– Jason Wilde