Tom Oates: Puzzle pieces missing

2011-08-19T23:30:00Z 2012-05-23T17:57:13Z Tom Oates: Puzzle pieces missingTOM OATES | toates@madison.com | 608-252-6172 madison.com

GREEN BAY - Normally, NFL preseason games are leisurely affairs.
The starters play a series or two, then head to the sideline to watch the reserves and other roster hopefuls thrash around. Indeed, the games are so unimportant the NFL tried to turn two of them into regular-season games this year.
However, due to the lockout that eliminated the NFL's offseason, the Green Bay Packers' preseason games actually have a sense of urgency attached to them. For coach Mike McCarthy, everything is accelerated because there is so little time to make decisions. That's why McCarthy had a longer than usual to-do list in the defending NFL champions' game against the Arizona Cardinals on Friday night at Lambeau Field.
Of course, McCarthy didn't expect to find answers to all of his questions in one game. Still, he did learn a few things in the Packers' 28-20 victory despite a sloppy, penalty-filled game.
So what was McCarthy hoping to find?
• A starter at left guard: T.J. Lang, who took a slight lead over rookie first-round pick Derek Sherrod after last week's exhibition opener, outplayed Sherrod again in the bid to replace departed free agent Daryn Colledge, who started for Arizona Friday night. Lang was in the game when the first offense went on its one long scoring drive. One series earlier, Sherrod looked slow when he was beaten cleanly for a sack by Calais Campbell. Lang and Sherrod were beaten for sacks later in the game, but both were playing tackle at the time.
• Depth at defensive end: With Mike Neal out with a knee injury and 2010 starter Cullen Jenkins lost in free agency, defensive end has suddenly become a trouble spot. C.J. Wilson started opposite B.J. Raji and was stout against the run before leaving with concussion symptoms. However, neither he nor Jarius Wynn provided any kind of pass rush. If Neal's injury lingers, the Packers might be in the market for an end.
• A long-lost kick returner: Rookies Randall Cobb and Alex Green flashed their speed on kickoff returns. However, the consistently impressive Cobb made his first big mistake. With the Cardinals pinned at their 7, Cobb blew a chance for a big return when he muffed a line-drive punt near midfield and had to fall on it. He later departed with a bruised left knee.
• An outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews: Matthews is out with a hamstring injury, which gave the others a chance to show what they can do. Turns out it wasn't much. Frank Zombo had one quarterback knockdown, but otherwise he, Erik Walden and Brad Jones provided little if any pass rush. Jones just isn't very explosive.
• A third-down back: James Starks, the leader in the clubhouse to replace the departed Brandon Jackson, was out with an ankle injury. Green showed a surprising burst and followed his blocking beautifully on 25-yard screen pass, but it was telling that dependable John Kuhn was the third-down back as long as Aaron Rodgers was the quarterback. In the second half, Green added to McCarthy's lack of trust when he missed former University of Wisconsin star O'Brien Schofield on a blitz and almost got quarterback Matt Flynn killed.
• Whether halfback Ryan Grant can regain his form: After missing all but a few plays of last season with an ankle injury, Grant looked rusty early, making a poor cut that cost him 5 to 10 yards. However, he showed his old burst on runs of 9 and 7 yards during the Packers' first touchdown drive.
• Whether tight end Jermichael Finley is still special: Making his 2011 debut after recovering from knee surgery, Finley never got deep but he did catch four passes for 33 yards. One thing is already clear: Rodgers loves having Finley on the field and will look for him first on blitzes.
• Clarity at wide receiver: Cobb has been so impressive that some thought he might crack the foursome of Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson. Some even worried that the 36-year-old Driver might become expendable. Driver put an end to that talk with three catches for 40 yards.
• Two reserve cornerbacks: Josh Gordy made a strong statement with an interception and a sack in last week's preseason opener. So strong, in fact, that he lined up in the dime defense with the starters Friday. However, Gordy didn't distinguish himself in coverage against the Cardinals. Neither did Jarrett Bush, for that matter.
• A gem among the undrafted rookie free agents: It was last year at this time that Zombo and cornerback Sam Shields made big impressions. Of course, both became key players in the Super Bowl run. Wide receiver Chastin West doesn't truly qualify because he was on the practice squad last year, but he opened some eyes when he caught a 97-yard touchdown pass from Flynn.
Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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