Jaguars at Packers: Keys to the game

The new-look defensive backfield and players on the roster bubble are just two of the things's Steve Lawrence will be watching on Thursday.

The Packers on Thursday night will play the third preseason game of the year, which is typically a dress rehearsal for the regular season. The starters usually play deep into the third quarter in advance of the final preseason game, in which anyone who's important will barely work up a sweat.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy, however, is taking a different tact. Though he wouldn't say how long the starters will play against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lambeau Field, he has two things in mind.

"No. 1, the health of our football team. No. 2, we have a lot of jobs that are still up in the air, so we'll probably play a bunch of different combinations of players, both on special teams and on offense and defense throughout the second quarter."

With that in mind, here are five things I'll be watching.

New-look defensive backfield
In the biggest news to come out of training camp this summer, McCarthy replaced Marquand Manuel with Atari Bigby as a starting safety and Patrick Dendy with Jarrett Bush as the nickel cornerback. Considering the No. 3 cornerback played a shade more than half of the defensive snaps last season, Bush is as much a starter as linebacker Brady Poppinga.

That means, with two preseason games left and training camp all but wrapped up, McCarthy has replaced 40 percent of his starting secondary.

That makes Thursday's game against Jacksonville and next Thursday's game at Tennessee vital, especially for Bigby and fellow starting safety Nick Collins to build the chemistry that Collins and Manuel lacked last season.

It will be especially interesting to watch Bigby, who has showed the best blitzing skills from his position since Packers hall of famer LeRoy Butler. His two sacks were impressive against the Seahawks, as was one play when he didn't get a sack but showed amazing balance by running through the block of a guard and forcing a throwaway.

There's more to playing safety than blitzing, though, so Bigby — who was undrafted and has been cut three times — has to show he's an upgrade over Manuel in run and pass defense. Unfortunately, neither the Jaguars nor the Titans have big-time, complicated passing schemes to get the new secondary ready.

Improving Favre
The Packers say they aren't worried about Brett Favre, and with his experience and track record, they're probably right. But Favre hasn't exactly lit the world on fire during two preseason games, and has had more erratic practices this summer than perhaps the last three training camps combined.

Through two preseason games, Favre is 9-of-19 (47.4 percent) passing for 81 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions and a 76.9 rating. He was improved against Seattle (7-of-12, 74 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, 104.2 rating) but even then he missed a couple receivers he could have hit blindfolded five years ago.

Favre turns 38 on Oct. 10, an age where some of the best quarterbacks in NFL history have taken sudden, steep slides. I'm not saying he's hit that point, but if he struggles on Thursday, maybe it's time to wonder.

Tight ends
While Bigby's promotion was the big news of training camp, Bubba Franks' demotion was the big on-the-field news coming out of the offseason.

I said it then and it's even more true today: What has Donald Lee done to deserve to start at such a critical position? True, he's faster than Franks and has better hands, so he's the better on-paper player. But Franks has done it in the games, is a better blocker and showed against Seattle that he still can be effective.

Yes, Franks had a horrible last season, but don't be surprised if he's starting on opening day, especially if he's productive against the Jaguars and Titans.

Incumbent starter Brandon Miree is finally healthy, and he should be ready to play against the Jaguars. Good timing, since his lengthy absence was about to cost him a spot on the roster. As it is, he's going to have to impress if he wants to remain the starter.

Then again, how comfortable can the Packers be with Korey Hall as the starter? Hall has some terrific long-term potential, but he was playing linebacker at Boise State just eight months ago.

Then there's big Corey White, who's been playing halfback through training camp, but can play fullback. He's playing all the special teams, so he's clearly in the Packers' plans.

A couple of these guys better impress, or the Packers will be shopping once the first wave of cuts are made on Aug. 28 or the final cuts are made Sept. 1.

Bubble boys
The first cuts should be pretty easy, but McCarthy and Ted Thompson probably will have a good idea of who will make their 53-player roster after breaking down Thursday's game.

In fact, even with all the talk of Thompson building a deeper team, there are surprisingly few players competing for roster spots.

On offense, Orrin Thompson may be battling Tony Palmer for the final offensive line spot. Clark Harris and Zac Alcorn are battling to be the No. 3 tight end, though both could be released if the Packers find someone on the street after cuts. The Packers might keep only one true fullback, with the tight ends filling in and White able to play both positions. At quarterback, Paul Thompson probably blew his chance last week, but Ingle Martin isn't a lock. The Packers could go with two, or add someone off the street.

The injury to Mike Montgomery made defensive line relatively simple. Fellow end Jason Hunter probably was on the bubble. Now, he's a relative lock. At middle linebacker, Abdul Hodge needs a big game to earn a spot ahead of rookie Desmond Bishop. The sixth linebacker, either Spencer Havner or Rory Johnson, will come down to special teams. At safety, either Manuel makes the team as a high-priced, veteran reserve, or they go with Tyrone Culver or Charlie Peprah based on special-teams play and long-term potential. At cornerback, Frank Walker — Ted Thompson's only big free-agent addition — seems to have practically no chance to make the roster, considering the play of Dendy, Bush and Will Blackmon.

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to Send comments to

Packer Report Top Stories