Looking at the All-Important Third Preseason Game

Week three of the preseason, finally. This is the one game that matters. The one game where you get to watch the starters for the entire first half and the battle for the final roster spots and maybe a starter or two in the second half.

Once the Packers walk out of Paul Brown Stadium Thursday night, grab some Skyline chili and head back north, most of the starters will be shut down until the opener against the 49ers.

The Pack will try to avoid their first 0-3 preseason start in nearly 20 years; not that that amounts to much, but you can bet Mike McCarthy would like to walk out of this one with a W--at the very least at halftime. The Bengals surprised virtually everyone by reaching the playoffs last season, riding a strong defense and a talented young combo in rookies Andy Dalton and AJ Green--so it should be a good road test.

The offense will welcome three weapons back into the mix. Greg Jennings will make his preseason debut, after dealing with a concussion that kept him on the sidelines for two weeks. Jermichael Finley is also back and the team will get its first look at RB Cedric Benson, who gets to play against the team that elected not to re-sign him after three productive seasons.

I'm looking forward to see what Benson looks like. I listened to his interview on Sirius XM's "Sirius Blitz" and he got very emotional when he talked about how badly he wants to play. He understands now how immaturity robbed him of a great opportunity in Chicago and he wants to make up for lost time. The truth is he's 29, and his chances of ever getting a big contract again are gone.

But he has an opportunity to become a key member of an offense that rivals any in the league; a chance to play for a Super Bowl contender and my hunch is he's the most talented back on this roster (which may not be saying much). The coaches say Alex Green is nearly back to 100% and we should get a good, long look at him against the Bengals as well. If he can be a third down threat as a receiver, he'll add yet another dimension to the Pack's explosive offense.

We'll all also be watching whether one of the young receivers stands out. There's a good chance the team will keep six this season (and keep only four tight ends, with Quarless on the PUP). For guys like Diondre Borel, Tori Gurley and Jarrett Boykin, what they do on special teams will be just as important as what they do on offense in the second half. They are fighting to claim a spot with the Pack or with a receiver-needy team like the Dolphins, Jets or Seahawks.

Once Rodgers exits, Graham Harrell gets his third shot at proving he can handle the backup spot. Both Rodgers and Ted Thompson have gone out of their way to defend Harrell, after last week's putrid performance against the Browns. Granted, he was up against it in the second quarter--playing with backups against Cleveland's starters. But he looks anything like a backup QB for a Super Bowl contender. If he struggles in these last two games, the team will strongly consider grabbing someone via waivers or a trade.

Defensively, the secondary is still looking to nail down a couple of spots. Davon House looked like he would grab the starting outside CB spot opposite Tramon Williams, until a shoulder injury knocked him out. Jarrett Bush is there for now, but expect to see Casey Hayward get a long look on Thursday. This might be Sam Shields' last shot to prove that 2010 wasn't a fluke.

I also think the Pack will give rookie safety Jerron McMillian a lot of reps with the #1 nickel defense, when Charles Woodson moves back to corner to man the slot receiver. McMillian flashed in the Browns game and will be watched very closely by Darren Perry and the defensive staff.

The Pack's top two picks will get another opportunity to get more snaps and hopefully get more comfortable. Both Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy will likely play in the fourth preseason game, but this will be their only real opportunity in a game that feels like a regular season game (at least in the first half).

At this point in the preseason, some of the last roster decisions become easy, because injuries knock guys out of contention. That's becoming a reality for guys like Shaky Smithson and Frank Zombo. But there are some spirited competitions going on, particularly on the defensive line, at wide receiver and at linebacker--not to mention special teams units. How these bubble guys fare against the Bengals will help Thompson and McCarthy decide on their "first 53."


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