A preseason six pack

This is the night Packers fans have longed for since the minicamps. The preseason kicks off tonight in San Diego, and there are plenty of things for Packers fans to keep an eye on.

Will the Green Bay Packers' first five draft picks earn spots in the starting lineup for Week 1 of the regular season? Can either of the kickers actually make a field goal? Do the Packers have a punter? How are the quarterbacks doing, and just as importantly, can a young offensive line give them any time? Can anyone catch the ball other than Donald Driver? How will Mike McCarthy fare in his first game as a head coach?

Those are just a few of the burning questions as the Packers head into tonight's preseason opener at San Diego.

Here are six things to watch.

1. Young offensive line


Nothing will work offensively this season unless rookie guards Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz and center Scott Wells, in his first year as a full-time starter, play beyond their years and quickly grasp the zone-blocking scheme.

The results during training camp haven't been overly inspiring, and they'll get a big test tonight against the Chargers' impressive front seven.

"If you ask anybody on the line, we feel comfortable and confident with what we've got," Wells said. "To us, the age factor's not really an issue. I think with the amount of time we put in (the organized team activities) and minicamp, we feel comfortable with the scheme."

2. Pitch ...


Brett Favre looked sharp during last weekend's scrimmage, but that was against a bunch of backups. How will Favre react when pressured? He'll almost certainly be rushed by the Chargers' aggressive defense, led by standout rusher Shawne Merriman. Will he make the wise decisions McCarthy has pleaded for, or will he continue the go-for-broke style that led to 29 interceptions last season?

Favre, of course, won't be in the game for more than a couple of series. His backup, Aaron Rodgers, looks like a totally different player than at this point a year ago, which isn't surprising considering he has a year of experience under his belt. Now, will that translate into a game situation?

"We're excited to give Aaron a chance to show what he can do out there," McCarthy said. "He's looked really good in camp, and I know he's excited about showing what he can do in a game."

3. ... and catch


The talk of training camp has been the play of rookie receiver Greg Jennings. The second-round pick's chances of beating out veterans Robert Ferguson and Rod Gardner for a spot in the starting lineup would increase dramatically with a solid game tonight.

His stats, while certainly important when compared to his rivals, won't matter as much as his ability to get open against a good pair of corners and his ability to be on the same page as the quarterback when the Chargers blitz.

Outside of Driver and Jennings, probably no receiver has a roster spot sewed up, so it's a big night for Ferguson, Gardner and Marc Boerigter, and for any of the young guys who make an eye-opening play.

4. The linebackers


That linebacker Abdul Hodge, a third-round draft pick, has been impressive during training camp is not a surprise. He was a big-time player at Iowa. That Hodge has outperformed fellow linebacker A.J. Hawk, the Packers' first-round pick, is shocking.

For Hawk, it's time to show he's a player, because the natives already are getting a little restless. For Hodge, it's time to show his impressive practice performances will translate to a game. If those skills are on full display tonight, the Packers will have to even more seriously consider how they can get Hodge into the starting lineup.

It's also an important game for starting middle linebacker Nick Barnett. He's repeatedly said he does not want to be "evicted" from his "home" at middle linebacker. Barnett has been a solid but rarely spectacular player, but he had better back up his talk.

5. Special teams


Special teams have been a weakness for the past few years, and they look no better thus far in training camp.

Neither Billy Cundiff nor Dave Rayner look up to the task of being the kicker. They both routinely make 4-of-5 field goals during practice, but that's practice. Cundiff has no range, and Rayner's leg is scattershot.

At punter, B.J. Sander's leg just doesn't look strong enough. He blamed last year's late-season struggles on a tired leg after punting in NFL Europe in the spring, but his leg doesn't seem much more explosive this year after getting a lengthy break. Canadian import Jon Ryan has the leg, but he's a bit slow getting the ball off, and hang time and consistency remain issues. Tonight will be a big test for him.

The return game is shaky, to be kind. Rookie Cory Rodgers, who was drafted in the fourth round for almost the sole purpose of returning kicks, can't even catch a punt. Veteran cornerback Charles Woodson will do a fine job as a punt returner, but do the Packers really want a key defensive player handling such a dangerous job?

6. McCarthy running the show


Mike McCarthy has never been the head coach in a football game. That will change tonight, and this preseason is as important for him as it is for anyone else.

There will be a lot to juggle, between calling the plays, managing the clock, deciding when to challenge an official's ruling and deciding what to do on fourth-and-short.

His play-calling will be worth watching, though armchair analysts would be wise not to read too much into the play selection. No doubt he'll want to keep as much of his philosophy and play-calling strategy as secret as possible. Still, McCarthy has promised more of a reliance on the running game, and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with the run even if it struggles early.

McCarthy is chomping at the bit, and while preseason wins and losses don't matter in the long run, don't tell that to him.

"Winning is most important, that's what our business is all about," McCarthy said. "And we say it over and over again, no excuses."

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com.


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