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Packers-Rams: 5 things to watch Saturday night

Published On: Aug 16 2013 11:38:03 PM CDT
Green Bay Packers

THE BASICS

The teams:  The Green Bay Packers (0-1) vs. the St. Louis Rams (0-1).

The time:  7 p.m. CDT Saturday.

The place:  Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis.

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 Rod Burks reporting from the sidelines.

The Packers injury report:  Wide receiver Charles Johnson (knee); wide receiver Randall Cobb (biceps); running back DuJuan Harris (knee); safety Sean Richardson (neck); cornerback Casey Hayward (hamstring); cornerback Tramon Williams (knee); offensive lineman JC Tretter (ankle); left tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee); offensive tackle Derek Sherrod (leg); tight end Andrew Quarless (quadriceps); wide receiver Jordy Nelson (knee); defensive end Datone Jones (ankle); and defensive end Jerel Worthy (knee) are out. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith (toe) and offensive tackle Andrew Datko (concussion) are questionable. Running backs James Starks (illness) and Eddie Lacy (hamstring) and tight end Ryan Taylor (knee) are probable.

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Ed-die, Ed-die:  Ideally, the Packers would be getting a look at both of their top candidates for the starting running back job, as DuJuan Harris finally passed his physical earlier in the week and was able to practice. He even took part in 11-on-11 sessions in full pads and worked in the physical half-line drill, too. Nonetheless, coach Mike McCarthy has already scratched him from the festivities and plans on making next Friday’s game against Seattle at Lambeau Field Harris’ debut. The good news is that second-round pick Eddie Lacy, who impressed during the Family Night Scrimmage but missed the preseason opener against Arizona with a hamstring issue that cropped up after the scrimmage.

Veteran James Starks got the starting nod against the Cardinals and appeared to cross the goal line on a fourth-and-goal run from the 2-yard line, but the officials ruled him down and did not reverse the call on replay. That call was the difference between the goose egg the Packers put up and at least a touchdown’s worth of respectability. While the No. 1 offense moved the ball 86 yards on that drive, points would have been a nice capper for the lone drive of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ night. Rodgers is expected to play two or three series in this game, as he and the rest of the offensive starters look to get closer to their midseason form.

“You guys know how the preseason goes. The first game, you go out there and get the cobwebs off. The second game, you get a little bit more reps, start getting comfortable, establishing a tempo. Third game, you start simulating a real game. And then it’s time to get it on,” wide receiver James Jones said. ‘It was good to get out there, finally see somebody different than our guys, (see) different coverages and stuff at full speed and have some fun.”

It would be more fun if Lacy can show what he’s shown in practice.

Centers of attention: Remember Scott Wells? The veteran center left Green Bay for a four-year, $24 million ($13 million guaranteed) deal in St. Louis, and while the initial returns weren’t positive – Wells spent over half of last season on the designated-for-return portion of the Rams’ injured reserve list with a broken foot – he’s back and healthy. The Packers’ center situation, meanwhile, isn’t quite as clear as it might have been a few days ago. With starter Evan Dietrich-Smith sitting out Thursday’s practice with a toe injury, the team’s lack of depth there is being exposed a bit. If Dietrich-Smith, who took over for Wells’ veteran replacement Jeff Saturday with two games left in the season last year, is scratched, second-year man Greg Van Roten will get the call. Van Roten came to camp last year as an undrafted free agent from Penn and had a good camp. He earned a spot on the practice squad and was later promoted to the 53-man roster. After a slow start in camp, he’s come on slightly but still has to prove he’s a viable interior backup.

“He improved. He needs to cut down on the silly mental errors,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “It’s the darnedest thing. He had a couple last week and he’s working hard to correct it this week. For him, he’ll diagnose and make some calls that it’s like, ‘Whoa, this kid’s playing his first game in the NFL at center and he ID’d some things and he was 100 percent right.’ I know if I was sitting in his shoes, I wouldn’t have made the call. I would have made the safe call. He made the right call and adjustment. But then, a basic looks, he goes and slides the line the wrong way, but we got lucky because they blitzed that way. It’s the simple stuff, it’s that silly crap, that he has to get rid of. He has progressed from a fundamental standpoint playing the center position. He really came on in the last week-and-a-half.”

Let’s try this again:  For a team trying to figure out which kicker would give it the best chance to win, last week’s 17-0 loss to the Arizona Cardinals was a nightmare scenario. Neither incumbent kicker Mason Crosby nor challenger Giorgio Tavecchio got a chance to try a field goal. In fact, after his horrible showing in the Family Night Scrimmage – 3 of 8 overall, including a 2 for 6 showing in head-to-head kicks with Tavecchio – the only time Crosby was on the field was for the opening kickoff. In practice during the week, Tavecchio was 16 for 16 and Crosby was 15 for 16, but kicking in games is what matters, and the Packers are hoping they’ll get to see both attempt kicks this time around.

“I think we’re going to trade off as it goes unless coach says something different. I’ll take the first ones and then we’ll go back and forth there,” Crosby said of the plan. “Obviously I want to get out there and we want to score points, so as a team we want to get on the scoreboard as much as possible. For me it’s more of an aspect of that. I want to get on the field because that means we’re scoring points for our team. This week obviously the goal here is we’re going to be better and we’re going to go out there and score some points.”

Hybrid model:  Outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene loves his guys, whom he calls his “kids.” There’s one member of his class who is a bit like that first-grader who was held back a year and is bigger than everyone else but might be behind a bit on the learning curve: Defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Mike Neal. Neal missed the first two weeks of camp with an abdominal strain but was activated last week and started to really look the part on Wednesday in practice. Now, we’ll see what he does in a game when he plays outside linebacker for the first time against guys in different uniforms. He had 4.5 sacks as an end last year when he was actually able to stay healthy, prompting the coaches to experiment with him in this role. At 275 pounds now, Neal looks more like he fits the profile. Can he play the position? That’s still to be determined.

“He’s doing great,” Greene said of Neal. “We did our individual drill with the running backs and rushing against the running backs, which is something that he’s going to have to do. Needless to say, he does that very well. Not only can he bring a lot of power and physicality to the point of attack, but he can use some finesse. His quickness and his athleticism comes into play, as well. When you get a running back thinking he’s just going to run over me, he does an okie-dokey and he’s fluid enough to go smoothly right around him without him touching him.”

Doing the right thing:  Offensive coordinator Tom Clements either can’t or won’t say when the Packers are hoping to have their starting five set on the offensive line, and while much of the focus leading up to (and during) the opener against the Cardinals was on rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari and how he’d fare as he replaced injured Bryan Bulaga, there’s still a question on the other end of the line. That’s where the right tackle battle is heating up between Marshall Newhouse, who surrendered a sack to Arizona’s John Abraham last week, and Don Barclay, who started six games at the position last year after Bulaga’s season-ending hip injury.

“It’s going to be determined whenever it’s determined,” Clements said.

It would seem from the outside looking in that the coaches want to give Barclay every chance to win the job after putzing around with him at center and guard for the first week of camp – until Bulaga’s season-ending knee injury. Now, he’s back at tackle – although he did spend two days as the starting right guard while T.J. Lang was sidelined by back pain – and was getting the first rep with the starters during the last two practices of the week. Look for him to get the starting nod against the Rams.

“You’re going to play the guys who are your best players at all times,” Campen said. “I think it’s getting closer. It’s getting closer. I think this week is a big week for individuals. And I do think it is getting closer. It is.”

– Jason Wilde

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