With Manning Coming, Thank God It's Preseason

After getting picked apart by the likes of Jake Delhomme and Matt Hasselbeck in the first two exhibitions, the NFL's best comes to town in the Colts' Peyton Manning. He'll provide a great test for a pass defense with some kinks to work out.

As far as preseason games go, this one is big.

The Green Bay Packers host the Indianapolis Colts in a nationally televised Thursday night game at Lambeau Field.

If the Packers had been able to play pass defense at a respectable level last season, they might have won the Super Bowl. Instead, they gave up five touchdown passes while forcing only four incompletions in the playoff loss at Arizona.

Thus far in two preseason games, the results haven't been encouraging, with first-half passer ratings of 120.7 allowed to Matt Hasselbeck, 120.8 to Seneca Wallace and 106.0 to Jake Delhomme.

Peyton Manning is, oh, slightly better than those guys.

"I think it'll be an excellent test for us," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Obviously, they've been one of the top offenses in the league for a long time. Their quarterback is a rare, rare guy. They've been running the same offense for a long time and they've put up good numbers. Yeah, I think it will be a good test. It will be a good evaluation for us to see some of our starters and some of our young guys, how they perform."

Particularly under the microscope will be the cornerbacks. Charles Woodson, who was healthy but held out of the Seattle game, returns, and Tramon Williams is off to a good start. But the Colts will spend most of the game with three receivers on the field and the Packers' search for a third cornerback has yielded equal parts optimism and frustration. Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee have battled throughout camp but their so-so play in the two games has forced the coaches to give undrafted rookie Sam Shields a shot at a position that plays about 60 percent of the defensive snaps.

If this were a regular-season game, that would be a scary prospect. But since this is a preseason game, Manning provides the perfect quarterback to challenge those third cornerbacks.

"Manning's the best quarterback in the league, and it's always fun to go against him," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "We're going to test him as well. We know how to get the ball off people."

Joining the cornerbacks under the microscope will be rookie safety Morgan Burnett, who has been OK in the first two preseason games. Not surprisingly, he's made some mistakes — both mental and physical. And not surprisingly, he's played tentatively as he thinks his way through his assignments rather than letting his superb athletic ability carry him. Tentative will get him toasted on Thursday.

"I'm seeing him getting better," said safeties coach Darren Perry, who worked overtime on Burnett's tackling following Monday's practice. "Consistency is an area that we're trying to focus in on. Understanding the run element in terms of run fits and where he fits in the run game. The passing game is coming every day for him. I think he learns something each day. When you've got a young player that hasn't played a lot of football, particularly at this level, it's going to be a learning experience for him. He's going to have a big learning curve. He's getting better and he's taking coaching."

Manning, with his "coach on the field" persona and ability to manipulate defensive backs pre- and post-snap, will provide a regular-season-worthy challenge for Burnett, who has been thrust into the starting role with Atari Bigby's ankle surgery.

Will he be ready to start in Week 1?

"He has no choice," Perry said. "He'll be there. I think the guys in him and we've got confidence in him as a staff."

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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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