Pick Six: What to Watch Tonight

We offer six story lines as the Packers host the Cleveland Browns in the preseason opener at Lambeau Field. How will a toned-down defense fare in its coming-out party? Those questions and more are below.

After two weeks, some judgments have been made. But those judgments only carry so much weight.

The new 3-4 defense has been dominant at times. Is that because the players have adjusted and the talent is there, or is it because the offensive line is struggling?

Jeremy Kapinos has showed signs of being a legit NFL punter. How will he fare under the lights and out of his comfort zone?

Four undrafted rookies appear to have legitimate shots at making the team. But are they really ready for prime time?

Preseason games have a bad reputation, but if you're a true fan, you'll find just as much intrigue when Aaron Rodgers is throwing to Greg Jennings as when Brian Brohm is throwing to JaRon Harris. Here's what we'll be watching when the Packers host Cleveland in tonight's Midwest Shrine Game.

Defense debuts

It's only the first preseason game, but Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins has a definite plan in mind. "Dominate. Let the world know that we're here."

For the most part, the new-look defense has had its way with the experienced Packers offense through training camp. The Browns, with an inept offense that failed to score a touchdown in its final five games of last season and a new coaching staff, would seem to be perfect fodder for the preseason opener.

There are many, many question marks, though many won't get answered with the first unit getting maybe 10 or 12 plays. How will Aaron Kampman do if he's caught in coverage? Will A.J. Hawk take a step forward after a pedestrian two weeks of camp? Can Ryan Pickett stand up to double teams? How will safety Atari Bigby do in coverage? How advanced are the players in communicating in this thinking man's scheme, especially with the Browns running a lot of no-huddle in camp?

Coach Mike McCarthy said the defense might run one-third of coordinator Dom Capers' blitz-heavy scheme. No need to show too much, especially with the Packers facing the Browns again in the regular season.

"Shhh. Don't tell anyone. It's a secret," Collins said.

Is the line fine?

After watching the running game go mostly nowhere through two weeks of camp, it begs this question: Is the offensive line a cause for concern or is the Packers' defense just that hard to handle?

All eyes will be on right tackle, where Allen Barbre is battling Breno Giacomini. Barbre's prospects seem to be sinking, though perhaps that's a byproduct of facing Kampman every day. The Packers desperately need somebody to step up, and the Browns offer a formidable front with Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams.

Other areas to watch: Jason Spitz and Scott Wells at center, Josh Sitton as the starting right guard, Tony Moll as the backup left tackle and rookies T.J. Lang and Evan Dietrich-Smith with the second unit.

The Packers have faced a 3-4 defense throughout training camp and will face another against Cleveland.

Can anyone punt?

Kapinos did OK during a four-game cameo last season and has come on strong after a bad first week of training camp. He was pounding the ball on Thursday night. But that's at practice, with 1,500 or so fans. Kapinos is waging an in-house battle with Durant Brooks, and there are several veteran punters looking for work. There will be 70,000 fans watching on Saturday, and the boo birds will be out in force if either of them have a botched kick.

Rookie debut

Just because first-round picks B.J. Raji (finally signed a contract on Friday) and Clay Matthews III (hamstring) won't play, that doesn't mean there's not rookies worth watching. In fact, the undrafted rookies form an intriguing group.

At receiver, there's Mosinee, Wis., native Kole Heckendorf, who's emerging as a real prospect. At running back, there's 5-foot-8 running back Tyrell Sutton, who has had more success than any of the backs at practice. At guard and center is Dietrich-Smith, who has a good chance at beating out veteran Duke Preston for a roster spot. At outside linebacker is Cyril Obiozor, who's gotten a ton of playing time with the injuries to Matthews and Jeremy Thompson and could be the ninth linebacker. At defensive end is Ronald Talley, who will get plenty of playing time with Raji and Justin Harrell out and Johnny Jolly (ankle) a question mark.

Among the draft picks, keep an eye on defensive end Jarius Wynn. The sixth-round pick is having a strong camp and has benefitted greatly from the extra reps.

Quarterbacks

Starter Aaron Rodgers has had an up-and-down first two weeks of camp, and he'll likely be thrilled to not see Kampman, Charles Woodson and Al Harris for a night.

The bulk of the snaps, however, will be taken by Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm. Flynn is having another strong training camp and made a name for himself during the preseason last year. Brohm needs a strong preseason, starting tonight.

Havner's many hats

One of the fun stories of camp is Spencer Havner. Havner, who is out of practice squad eligibility after spending the last three seasons on the Packers' unit, has played inside linebacker, outside linebacker and tight end, and is with the first unit on all of the special teams. A linebacker by trade, he's looked pretty good as the front-runner to be the third tight end.

"It's a big opportunity for me to show that I can play," he said.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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