Packers at Steelers: Keys to the game

From offense to defense to special teams, here are five things to look for as Green Bay kicks off the preseason on tonight at Pittsburgh.

It's dangerous to read too much into a preseason football game. Especially the first preseason game. With that said, tonight's opener (6:30 p.m. CT start) at Pittsburgh will provide a big test for a young Packers roster with a bunch of unanswered questions.

Here are five keys to the game.

Packers run game vs. Steelers run defense
Last year, coach Mike McCarthy stressed the importance of the running game and vowed to make it the emphasis of his offense. Then he went out and had Brett Favre throw a team-record number of passes.

McCarthy is returning home to Pittsburgh. He was called "Pittsburgh Macho" when he was hired by Ted Thompson. He's got to find out if Brandon Jackson is capable of being a No. 1 running back, and he's got to find out if he's got a fullback. Even with a new coaching staff, Pittsburgh hasn't changed its blitzing ways. The Steelers blitzed the Saints on practically every play when it was starters vs. starters in the Hall of Fame Game last week.

With all of that said, expect McCarthy to lean on his young and talented offensive line. The Packers, like most teams, don't spend much time game-planning for a preseason game, so they probably won't be fully prepared to face a wide array of blitzes. Thus, to keep Favre and Aaron Rodgers safe, look for McCarthy to see if his blockers can handle the Steelers' front seven. If they can, it will be a good omen for the season.

Packers defensive line vs. Steelers offensive line
The Packers' defensive line is supposed to be a strength, with the addition of first-round pick Justin Harrell at defensive tackle and Cullen Jenkins entering his first season as the starter.

Pittsburgh's offensive line is always stout, and it will be this year, too, even with longtime line coach Russ Grimm bolting to Arizona. Alan Faneca is one of the best left guards in the business, and he'll provide a terrific trial-by-fire for Harrell and Colin Cole, who are competing for the defensive tackle slot opposite Ryan Pickett. Jenkins, meanwhile, faces underrated left tackle Marvel Smith.

Yes, it's only the first preseason game, but the Packers' defensive front seven is supposed to be what carries this team to victories. The Steelers will provide a fantastic first test.

Rodgers under center
Favre will start, but McCarthy wants Rodgers to get some snaps with the rest of the first-team offense. That means Rodgers likely will play at least half of the game.

Rodgers has had a strong training camp, and performed well with the No. 2 offense — surrounded by a few guys who won't make the team — against the No. 1 defense during last Saturday's intra-squad scrimmage. He hasn't faced a true pass rush yet, though, and hasn't been hit since the New England game last season, when his season ended with a broken foot.

Nobody knows yet whether Rodgers really is the quarterback of the future, and Saturday's game won't provide any definitive answers. Still, a good outing against a strong team should bolster the confidence of his teammates, coaches and the fans.

In the secondary
The battle to be the Packers' backup cornerbacks is perhaps the hottest fight in training camp, and the ability to find a quality No. 3 and No. 4 cornerback became apparent when the NFC North-rival Detroit Lions threw for 500 yards in their preseason opener.

Jarrett Bush is closing on Patrick Dendy to be the nickel corner, and don't forget about Will Blackmon, who showed playmaking skills during the scrimmage and is the most athletic of the bunch. Those corners will be tested by Pittsburgh's new offense, which was partially written by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Then, there's the battle which hasn't been much of a battle. Marquand Manuel seemingly is entrenched as the No. 1 safety opposite Nick Collins, but that all could change if Manuel performs like he did at the scrimmage and someone from a group including Atari Bigby, Aaron Rouse or Marviel Underwood finally does enough to impress. If someone is going to unseat Manuel, he had better make his move now.

Kickers go live
Barring a few breakout performances by the offense, the Packers are going to need strong play from their special teams to win games this season.

At the forefront is the battle at kicker, where rookie sixth-round pick Mason Crosby has made up a lot of ground on incumbent Dave Rayner this week. You don't want the offense to stall between the Steelers' 25- and 35-yard lines too often, but the more opportunities for Rayner and Crosby, the better.

Finally, there's the battle at kickoff returner. Shaun Bodiford seems to have the advantage over rookie fifth-round pick David Clowney. Clowney is raw at receiver and there are only so many roster spots, but he could turn the tables with an impressive runback or two.

The special teams haven't gone totally live during training camp. Thus, the depth chart at this early stage means practically nothing.

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to Send comments to

Packer Report Top Stories