The Packers lost their first two exhibition games and haven’t started 0-3 in preseason since 1993. Don’t sound the alarm quite yet, though. That 1993 team went 9-7 in the regular season and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs.
Th team also is coming off a 15-1 regular season with the reigning league MVP and a record-setting offense. Remember those Peyton Manning-led Colts teams from 2005 through 2010, went 4-22 in the preseason but 75-21 in the regular season.
So, deep breath, Packers fans.
Preseason games are for hitting targets and trying new things, as Aaron Rodgers said, and for evaluating young players who often have little bearing on the regular season. Regardless how Thursday night’s game at Cincinnati turns out, even though the starters are expected to play at least a half, no need to panic and overreact.
That’s what Twitter is for.
Still, while winning isn't critical, playing better certainly is. So here are five things to watch.
1. No offense: That record-setting offense hasn’t been terrible in its limited work in the first two games, but it has been a tad unpleasant. The starters have scored once on six preseason possessions, with the other five resulting in three giveaways, a punt and a turnover on downs. Rodgers has gone 8 of 19 passing for 75 yards with a touchdown and an interception, good for a Tebowesque passer rating of 49.2. Not exactly the potent, chain-moving attack everyone remembers. Wide receiver Greg Jennings will get his first preseason action at Cincinnati, which should help, but tight end Jermichael Finley’s debut, delayed by a quadriceps injury, has been put further on hold due to the birth of his child Thursday. No one expects a production plunge from the 2011 offensive juggernaut once the regular season begins, but it would be reassuring to see the passing game flourish in the first half against the Bengals.
2. Backup QB Harrell: Speaking of offensive struggles, another bad showing by the backups would be the third offense for the second-teamers. And after two uninspiring preseason performances, it could be three strikes and you’re out for No. 2 quarterback Graham Harrell. There’s been plenty of kvetching about Harrell’s poor play from fans, many of whom want to see the Packers go out and acquire a more capable veteran. So far, everyone within the organization, from the general manager to the head coach to the quarterbacks coach to the starter, has staunchly defended Harrell. And as long as his throwing is passable and his game management shrewd against the Bengals, the Texas Tech record-setter should be safe. But a disastrous outing would likely end the Harrell experiment after three years. And even a mediocre performance -- such as his first two, when he completed a combined 27 of 51 passes for 235 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, a 55.6 passer rating -- would have the vocal anti-Harrell Twitter mob wielding their torches and pitchforks again.
3. Benson’s back: In less than two weeks, Cedric Benson has gone from unwanted free agent to signing with Green Bay and potentially being a major piece of the offense. Right now, without having played a down for the Packers, he’s the favorite to be the starter for the Sept. 9 opener against the 49ers. That streets-to-starter ascent would be a remarkable one and it really starts Thursday against Benson’s former team. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards each in his last three seasons in Cincinnati but, at 29 and after major mileage, he wasn’t brought back. Now Benson has an opportunity to show his old team what they lost and his new team what they’ve gained. He said he wants to run for 100 yards Thursday, though that’s highly unlikely, given the Packers pass-heavy offense and the fact that, with three running backs already hurt, Green Bay doesn’t want to risk injury to Benson or Alex Green. Coaches have said Benson can help the offense by keeping opposing defenses honest, keeping safeties from sitting back deep. What he needs to do most of all, though, is prove his worth in protection -- protecting the football (he had 12 fumbles over the past two years) and protecting Rodgers. Those are the top responsibilities for Packers running backs. If he can four yards a carry, too, that’s just gravy.
4. Something special: It’s been said throughout training camp -- and every year, it seems, of the Ted Thompson draft-and-develop young players era -- but it still rings true: the easiest way onto this roster is via special teams. Stand out on a couple of those units, or better yet, all four of them, and you give yourself a much greater chance to make the team. Just ask Jamari Lattimore and M.D. Jennings, two undrafted free agents, or seventh-round rookie tight end Ryan Taylor, all of whom made the Packers’ roster last season largely because of their willingness and excellence on special teams. This year, inside linebacker Robert Francois increased his value and likely locked up a spot with three coverage tackles, including two superior stops on Browns All-Pro returner Josh Cribbs. And undrafted cornerback Otis Merrill returned a kickoff 60 yards against Cleveland, showing a part of his game not previously evident. Wideout Tori Gurley, who, at 6-foot-4 has shown a knack for blocking punts, had a terrific block on Merrill’s return. He needs to use special teams to show the Packers why they should choose him as a sixth receiver.
5. Secondary of primary importance: Two spots are still up for grabs on the Packers defense and they are both in the defensive backfield. One is strong safety in the nickel package, and the other is the No. 2 cornerback outside. The Packers play a ton of nickel defense -- they were in it about 75 percent of the time last season -- and in that formation, veteran Charles Woodson plays slot cornerback. In the base 3-4, he moves back to safety. But more often than not, he will be in the slot and Green Bay will have one of three young safeties in the game. M.D. Jennings, the undrafted free agent last year, got the first chance at it, but was unremarkable. Rookie fourth-rounder Jerron McMillian played extensively last week and had his “best day as a Packer,” according to coach Mike McCarthy; practice-squad veteran Anthony Levine got some reps with the starters this week. One of them needs to stand out Thursday. At cornerback, Davon House was the frontrunner, but is now out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. Incumbent Sam Shields, who regressed last year was disappointing early in camp, has gotten a little better. Physical veteran Jarrett Bush was given the spot at the outset of camp but hasn’t shown the ability to cover deep. Second-rounder Casey Hayward has been remarkably consistent for a rookie and may have the edge right now. The Bengals game will be a showcase for one of them.
For more Packers news and notes, follow James Carlton on Twitter @CBSSportsNFLGB.