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Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy sees challenge in balancing veterans, rookies in preseason opener

Aug. 11, 2011
 

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Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, left, and head coach Mike McCarthy look on during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field, Wednesday, August 10, 2011. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette

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Coach Mike McCarthy suggested he will handle this week’s preseason opener Saturday at Cleveland a little different than in the past, when his starters usually played a series or two into the second half.

With offseason practices canceled by the NFL owners lockout, McCarthy wants his starters to get ample work but also has to make sure new players get enough playing time for the coaches to get a good evaluatioin.

McCarthy suggested after practice Thursday night that he’s probably going to spread out the playing time more evenly among the starters and backups than in past years, but that he might mix and match personnel more also, with some non-starters playing with the starters, and vice versa. It’s also unclear whether he might completely rest some long-time veterans, at least on defense.

“We don’t think it’s smart to jump into preseason exactly how we have in the past,” McCarthy said, “where sometimes the reps are lopsided at certain positions, and younger players play a whole lot in one game and veterans don’t, then you flip the next game. We’re going to try to balance that out the best we can.”

The Packers waited until Thursday to begin game planning for Saturday. In previous training camps they might have mixed in a couple team periods on the Browns earlier in the week, but with no offseason practices and a new one-practice-a-day camp schedule, McCarthy spent the first nine days of practice working exclusively on his offensive and defensive schemes. He finished installing his playbooks Wednesday night and scheduled meetings to go over the Browns on Thursday afternoon and on-field practice of the game plan Thursday night.

The Packers canceled their Friday practice so they can visit the White House in honor of their Super Bowl win last season, so their only on-field work for the Browns was Thursday night.

“We planned on spending more time on Cleveland,” McCarthy said, “but we had to adjust our schedule for a couple different reasons.”

The game planning for preseason games is mostly so the players, especially the young ones, at least know the basics of an opponents’ schemes and personnel groupings. That gives them a fighting chance to show their abilities instead of being surprised by what they see.

“We have to be careful – have to make sure I don’t call the whole ready list,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “When the (starters) are out there that will be available, but we put these young guys in there, you have to have a segment (of the playbook) you feel they’re pretty confident in. Because if not, they’ll be thinking, they’ll be playing at three-quarters speed.

“It’s normally a wakeup call, because I think with any young guys it’s kind of a progression you go through. All of a sudden you come out here (in practice) and things are going pretty fast, but then that first preseason game it steps up, you’re going against somebody else for the first time.”

Last year in the preseason opener, backup quarterback Matt Flynn played into the early fourth quarter, and then No. 3 quarterback Graham Harrell played the final three series of the game.

“I’m not saying (game planning) doesn’t matter,” Flynn said, “but our offense has plays for every defense out there and adjustments for everything, so we have to go out there and execute.”

Crosby still might play: Kicker Mason Crosby tested his sprained ankle briefly in practice Thursday night with a few kickoffs and two field-goal attempts, but the Packers won’t know until Friday or even Saturday whether he’ll kick against the Browns. Crosby injured his ankle in practice last Friday night.

If Crosby’s ankle doesn’t hold up after testing it Thursday, the Packers could sign another kicker for Saturday, but this late in the week they instead might have punter Tim Masthay do their placekicking.

Masthay did kickoffs in college at Kentucky and was a place-kicker in high school. On the first day of training camp this year, with Crosby not allowed to practice because of the Aug. 4 rule, Masthay tried a handful of field goals in practice.

If the Packers didn’t want to risk Masthay getting injured attempting a kick he doesn’t practice much, they could eschew field goals and try two-point conversions after touchdowns, and have him only kick off.

“As a player I’m competitive,” Masthay said, “and it gets my competitive juices flowing – if you need me to do anything, I’m here to do it, confident I can do it, happy to do it. But from the coaches’ standpoint, that could be the view. I trust those guys. If they want me to kick I say great, let’s do it. If they say, ‘Tim we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to risk the injury or whatever,’ I’d say OK, I trust that too.”

Shields injured: Cornerback Sam Shields was one of three players injured Thursday night in practice, which leaves in doubt their availability for Saturday’s game.

Shields sustained a bruised hip in the last period of practice when he landed hard on the ground after making an eye-catching, one-handed interception of a pass that appeared to be in receiver Tori Gurley’s hands.

Nose tackle B.J. Raji sprained his right ankle in practice and didn’t return, and rookie halfback Alex Green suffered a strained quad and didn’t return.

Safety Brandon Underwood (knee) and rookie cornerback Davon House (hamstring) are all but out for Saturday. House is hoping to be back practicing next week.

LB Diyral Briggs (hamstring) still hasn’t passed his physical and won’t play.

The status of tight end Jermichael Finley (glute) is uncertain. Finley missed practice Wednesday night.

Extra points: Former halfback Ahman Green retired officially as a Packers player Thursday. Green, the team’s all-time leading rusher with 8,322 yards, played eight seasons (2000-06, ’09) with the Packers.

“Ahman Green was a special player, no question about it,” McCarthy said. “His numbers speak for themselves. The thing I always appreciated was his running style, just the forward lean and explosion that he had as in-line runner. He also had the unique ability and speed to finish long runs. He’s a Packer for life and that’s the way it should be.

Backup tight end Andrew Quarless felt relieved Wednesday night when after dropping a well-thrown third-down pass from Aaron Rodgers in a team drill, he came back on the next play and made an extended catch over the middle to convert fourth down. Later in a red-zone period he caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers.

“I’m just glad Aaron Rodgers had the confidence to come back to me,” Quarless said. “I’m just really mad about that drop, it was in my hands.”

Injury report: Returned from injury: LB Cardia Jackson, K Mason Crosby.

Still out: WR Brett Swain (hamstring), S Brandon Underwood (knee), CB Brandian Ross (hamstring), LB Diyral Briggs (hamstring), G Adrian Battles (Achilles), T Chris Campbell (shoulder), TE Jermichael Finley (glute)

New injuries: DE Chris Donaldson (shoulder, left practice Wednesday), CB Sam Shields (bruised hip, left practice Thursday), NT B.J. Raji (ankle, left practice Thursday), RB Alex Green (left practice Thursday).

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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