With veteran Al Harris' status for the start of the season uncertain as he continues to rehab from a significant knee injury, Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams are firmly entrenched as the starting cornerbacks in the Packers' base defense. But the nickel position, which is basically another starting spot because of how much the team plays its sub defense, remains wide open in the fourth week of training camp.
In the preseason opener against Cleveland, second-year man Brandon Underwood worked as the nickel back with third-year corner Pat Lee as the dime back. With Woodson getting the night off last Saturday night in Seattle, Underwood moved up to the starting left corner spot opposite Williams with Lee sliding into the nickel role.
Both players have shown flashes of their ability in practice and in the games, but not the consistency that the coaches are looking for at the position. Underwood picked off an underthrown Colt McCoy pass in the Cleveland game, but also gave up some receptions to Mohamed Massaquoi in the Browns game and against veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh at Seattle. Lee has posted six tackles in the first two games, but gave up a 21-yard gain to Houshmandzadeh and also was flagged for an illegal contact penalty on a third-down stop in the Seattle game.
"We still need to see more of them," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "I think both games, they have done some good things but there are things that we need to improve on. That is why you play these preseason games. This is where you can kind of evaluate where you are and hopefully the guys can take and learn something from every game in these games and get themselves more ready when the regular season starts.
"I don't think you can declare one (as the frontrunner) off the first two games. I think we still have to see what they do. This will be a good test for both of those guys Thursday night. This quarterback and this group of receivers, they have moved the ball as well as anybody in the league for quite a while."
That quarterback is the Colts' Peyton Manning, the only four-time MVP winner in the history of the National Football League, who is coming off his league-record 10th 4,000-yard passing season in 2009. The receiving corps is led by four-time Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne, who caught 100 passes for 1,264 yards and 10 TDs last season, as well as second-year wideout Austin Collie (60-676-7) and third-year man Pierre Garcon (47-765-4). Add in fourth-year receiver Anthony Gonzalez, who missed every game except one last season due to an injury but caught 57 passes for 664 yards and four scores in '08, and it is an imposing group.
"It's a great measuring stick," Underwood said. "You are going against one of the greatest quarterbacks in the NFL, so from that standpoint it will be great to see how we line up and compete.
"We're going into this game with the mentality of this is almost a real game, like this is the first game of the season."
While to this point it has been a two-man battle for the nickel job, Capers said non-drafted rookie Sam Shields will get increased playing time on Thursday night, and could factor into the competition as well. Shields played cornerback for just his final season at Miami after spending the first three years at wide receiver.
"It didn't take long to see his talent," Capers said. "It is just a matter of the number of things that he hasn't seen at the position. He has worked very hard and it will be interesting to see how he does Thursday night. This will be a good test for him."
Shields posted a nice breakup on a pass to Browns wide receiver Syndric Steptoe in the fourth quarter that he nearly picked off in the opening preseason game, and on Saturday night he intercepted a Charlie Whitehurst pass that deflected off of tight end Anthony McCoy late in the fourth quarter to seal the 27-24 win over the Seahawks.
Shields' reps to this point in the games have come against backup wide receivers, so now the next step for him is to get more work against front-line players. That holds true for all three in the competition as the coaches try to determine who is best equipped to line up as the nickel back at Philadelphia in Week 1 if Harris is still sidelined.
"We just think this is a chance where we have got to give (Shields) a chance to show what he can do," Capers said. "I think all three of those young men are still battling and there have not been any decisions made in terms of who we would put out there after Charles and Tramon.
"Once we start playing these games in a couple of weeks, your evaluations are going to be based on going against their best. Sometimes you can get a little false sense of security if you don't have an opportunity to do that, and that's part of the evaluation process. The more we can see those guys against the No. 1's that they are going to be playing against, it gives us a truer evaluation of where we are."
Bulaga back at itAfter dropping out of practice on Monday night due to a hip flexor injury, rookie tackle/guard Bryan Bulaga was a full participant in Tuesday's padded practice.
"It was just a tweak that I have had since last week," Bulaga said. "It kind of flared up yesterday and I kind of got treatment on it and got it settled down. I just went out there and did what I could today and just continued on. It will be good to go on Thursday.
"I need the reps. I need to be out there and practice and get a better feel for the position at guard and tackle both. Anytime I can get out there, if it's not killing me or I can't walk, I'll be out there doing it."
McCarthy said the plan is for Bulaga and veteran Daryn Colledge to continue splitting reps at left guard with the No. 1 offensive line on Thursday night, which has been the case for the first two preseason games. Bulaga has also been working at left tackle with the second offensive line.
"There is a lot of stuff that needs to be worked on these next two weeks," Bulaga said. "Getting these reps in this game is going to be important to see how I improve from last week to this week.
"Just improving on every aspect of my game. Pad level, run blocking, hand placement, footwork, everything. I'm just trying to really refine everything and feel good about everything, especially after that last preseason game. I want to feel good about everything and comfortable with the offense."
Injury/participation updateLinebacker Alex Joseph returned to practice for the first time since sustaining a quad injury in the Aug. 5 morning practice, and linebacker A.J. Hawk (ankle) was also back to full duty after a trial return on Monday night.
Remaining out were running backs Kregg Lumpkin (hamstring) and Quinn Porter (ankle), linebackers Clay Matthews (hamstring) and Brad Jones (shoulder), defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf), and tackle/guard Allen Barbre (back). Wide receiver Brett Swain (knee) was sidelined, and the three PUP players – safety Atari Bigby (ankle), cornerback Al Harris (knee) and running back James Starks (hamstring) – also remained out.
Wide receiver Greg Jennings dropped out of practice with lower back spasms, and linebacker Brady Poppinga left practice toward the end after taking a cleat to the shin covering fullback John Kuhn on a pass down the sideline.
McCarthy said no one has been ruled out for Thursday night's game, and that they will give the injured players a chance to show what they can do on Wednesday before making any final decisions. He did say Jenkins was a "long shot" to play against the Colts.
McCarthy said the starters will play the entire first half on Thursday night, and then he will assess at halftime where the team is at before deciding whether they will play at all in the third quarter. Additional coverage - Aug. 24