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Countdown to Kickoff

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The Packers and Rams will do battle at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis for the second straight year on Saturday.

Packers-Rams: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams:  The Green Bay Packers (0-1) vs. the St. Louis Rams (0-1).

The time:  3 p.m. CDT Saturday.

The place:  Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis, Mo.

The TV coverage:  WTMJ (Ch. 4) in Milwaukee, WGBA (Ch. 26) in Green Bay and WKOW (Ch. 27) in Madison.

The announcers: Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon, with Rod Burks reporting from the sidelines.

The injury report: 

Packers –  Five players did not make the trip for the Packers: Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (knee); tackle/guard Don Barclay (knee); tight end Colt Lyerla (knee) linebacker Joe Thomas (knee) and running back Rajion Neal (knee). Safety Tanner Miller (ankle) and wide receiver Jeff Janis (shingles) are expected to make their debuts after missing last week’s game at Tennessee. Defensive tackle Letroy Guion (hamstring), who is on the non-football injury list, was set to travel to the game but will not play. Veteran wide receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring) did not play last week but was set to practice Friday and may play.

Rams –  Cornerback Janoris Jenkins (hamstring) could play. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson (hamstring), cornerback Brandon McGee (ankle) quarterback Sam Bradford (knee), center Scott Wells (illness), running back Isaiah Pead (hand) and running back Trey Watts (hamstring) are expected to play. Defensive end Michael Brockers (ankle) , linebacker James Laurinaitis (ankle), defensive tackle Kendall Langford (elbow), left tackle Jake Long (knee), guard/tackle Rodger Saffold (stinger), center Demetrius Rhaney (knee) and center/guard Barrett Jones (back) are out.

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood:  After taking last weekend’s preseason opener off – if you call standing on the sideline in a pouring rainstorm in a poncho getting the weekend “off” – but coach Mike McCarthy made it clear that his starting quarterback will indeed make his preseason debut on Saturday. How long he’ll play, well, that’s unclear. Last preseason, Rodgers played five series and 45 snaps, and that appears to be roughly the plan again this summer. He is anxious to play, even on a limited basis, however – in part to get some work with new starting center JC Tretter and his young pass-catchers, and in part to be reminded how it feels to be hit.

“It'll be good to get out there with J.C., get some reps with him and some timing with some of the receivers,” Rodgers said. “It'd be nice to take a couple of hits maybe – legal hits. This is the time of year we're trying to get to be playing the right way and get in and get out."

Once he’s out, the battle for the No. 2 QB job will resume. While Matt Flynn appears to hold a slight lead over Scott Tolzien, the coaches have made it clear that it’s anyone’s ballgame. Flynn got the start with Rodgers dodging raindrops last week in Tennessee; it’s possible that Tolzien will go in first in this one. Because the rain in Nashville made it hard to evaluate either quarterback – both had good nights, considering the circumstances – getting them both plenty of work in the climate-controlled dome is a goal.

“Especially coming off of last week, it will be good to be able to really see what guys can do,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “We try to keep it even [in practice] between the two, splitting them between the No. 2 and No. 3 group, trying to make it as equal a competition as we can.”

Asked if the decision will go all the way through the end of camp, Van Pelt replied, “I would think that would be the fair way to do it.”

Not so happy returns:  Shawn Slocum was not happy when Randall Cobb suffered a broken leg – a fracture at the top of his tibia near his knee – during the Packers’ Oct. 13 victory at Baltimore. But you know the Packers special teams coordinator wanted to point out that Cobb, whose use on special teams over the past two years had been questioned because of his value to the offense, was dying inside, wanting to point out that the injury occurred while Cobb was on offense.

Maybe that’s why McCarthy, who has used Cobb, Tramon Williams and even Charles Woodson as his punt returners while they were starting from scrimmage, reiterated his stance this week that his punt and kickoff returners do not have to be players who are backups on offense or defense. McCarthy might as well have used one of his catchphrases, polluted mindset.

“I’ve got to get away from that thinking. I think it’s dangerous to get into limitations and trying to be too cautious,” McCarthy said. “When you get cautious and worry, negative things happen. So we’re going to put our best players out there. We need to be better on special teams and a good returner makes any return unit better.”

The Packers threw rookie Davante Adams to the wolves – or at least the rain – and had him return punts last week despite never having caught a punt in practice beyond post-practice JUGS machine work, and disaster ensued. He muffed both punts he fielded, losing the second and suffering a wrist injury in the process. Micah Hyde, who took over punt return duties last year and finished fifth in the NFL, went in after that.

Although Hyde is, at least for now, starting at safety, he’ll likely reprise his role as the punt returner. No. 3 running back DuJuan Harris is the current leader for the kickoff return gig.

Nickel-dimers:  While cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt wouldn’t go with the cliché of it being a good problem to have, the Packers’ secondary depth for their nickel and dime sub packages is impressive. They realistically have six players –  Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Davon House, Hyde and Jarrett Bush – to man the four cover spots (the two outside cornerback positions, plus the inside nickel and dime slots).

Most often in the nickel defense, Hayward has come off the bench and the four starters – Williams and Shields outside, Hyde and Morgan Burnett at safety – stayed put. During the final open practice of the week, the six defensive backs in the No. 1 dime group were Shields and House outside, Hyde and Williams inside and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Burnett at safety.

Whitt said his plan is to keep that rotation intact for the Rams game, then examine the film and see if he wants to alter the mix. He appears to be excited again about House, who has had inopportune injuries hurt his quest for more playing time over the past two seasons.

“The best ones are going to be out there. We’re going to give those four guys the opportunity, and JB’s making a push to be in the opportunity, too, so that makes five,” Whitt said. “The rotation that you see is going to stay the same until after this game, and then you might see a different one. I’m going to let those guys decide by their play who’s going to be the ones out there and I told them if I have to make the decision, I’m going to go with the guys that I have history with. So they better do what they have to do to change it.”

Whitt said the lineup could change on a week-to-week basis in the regular season based on matchups, too. House is a physical outside corner and has been the one guy on the Packers’ defense who could go toe-to-toe with Jordy Nelson, so perhaps he plays in games against big outside receivers (Detroit, Chicago) and Hayward or Bush gets the nod against other teams.

“It’s going to be fluid. It’s going to be the best guys that play. And matchups will be a part of it,” Whitt said. “My main concern is playing high-level defense and winning football games. So it doesn’t matter how many good players we have at a certain position. If we’re 25th in pass defense (as the Packers were last year), we’ve got to be better than that. We’ve got to be a complete unit and do what we have to do to make the unit better. So that’s the only thing I’m concerned about, and I have to make sure I choose the right men to go out there and get that done.”

Catching on:  For all the talk about the Packers having perhaps their deepest wide receiving corps of the Rodgers era – something that seems ludicrous when you think about the fact that Donald Driver, the team’s all-time leading receiver, was sixth on the 2012 depth chart toward the end of that season – the youngsters in the group haven’t exactly seized the opportunity.

In fairness, last week’s car-wash conditions didn’t lend themselves to passing-game production, but there’ll be no such excuse inside the dome Saturday. And it’s time for the young wideouts – Jeff Janis, Kevin Dorsey, Myles White, Chris Harper, Alex Gillett – battling for the fifth and/or sixth spots to rise up in the wake of fifth-round pick Jared Abbrederis’ season-ending knee injury.

At this point, the guy in that group to make the best impression has been Janis, who missed the first week of camp with shingles and is set to make his NFL debut. He’s made a circus catch just about every day he’s been on the field, so now he’ll have to take that to game conditions.

“I always stress to the guys in my room that [the deepest receiving corps title] is earned. We have to earn that. We have to earn that by our actions,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “It can’t be inconsistent as far as what we’re doing on Sundays or whenever we line up [on game days]. We’ve got to be extremely consistent. We’ve got to go out there and prove it every single practice, every single day.

“The situation will sort itself out. The players will determine it. The most important part is making the most of your opportunities. When you’re given an opportunity to go line up, make the most of it.”

Line dancing:  The trade of 2012 second-round pick Jerel Worthy to the New England Patriots this week was as much about the Packers’ feelings about their youth movement on the defensive line as it was about doubting that Worthy would ever flourish in their system. That said, there are a lot of young guys that must prove themselves worthy of a roster spot, and that process has only just begun. While the roster spots of B.J. Raji, Datone Jones and Mike Daniels are secure, nothing is certain after that. Nose tackle Mike Pennel, an undrafted free agent, and second-year defensive tackle Josh Boyd, a fourth-round pick a year ago, have looked good, while third-round pick Khyri Thornton has had a quiet camp (although his roster spot is guaranteed by his high draft status anyway). Undrafted rookies Luther Robinson and Carlos Gray have flashed and will have to show more to land on the 53.

“Are they ready to go right now? Absolutely not. They’ve played one preseason game and that’s what the next three games are for,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “I like the way they work, I like their attitude. We still have three preseason games to get them ready. That’s what they’re there for.”

McCarthy said he’d like to see some of those youngsters take a big step forward in this game so a rotation of linemen for the regular season can start to take shape.

“Really in this particular game, once we get past the first group, I think it’s going to be real important for them to establish a rotation,” McCarthy said. “Because that’s what you want to see, the ability to rotate in and out of multiple personnel groups, not just always playing base or always playing sub. This will be a good week for those guys.”

– Jason Wilde