After watching a lot of film on both the Packers and Bengals, talking to coaches and scouts, and following preseason practices, here are some key things to watch in their game on Monday (ESPN 8 p.m. ET).
Green Bay Packers
• The Packers seem excited about their new zone blocking scheme for their offensive line. It's a proven system that was perfected by Alex Gibbs in Kansas City, Denver and Atlanta, and is now being implemented by offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski and head coach Mike McCarthy, both Gibbs disciples. They believe it will lead to less mental mistakes, provide good running lanes for their one-cut backs and possibly cover up the deficiencies of their interior OL.
• Speaking of the interior offensive line, there has been a revolving door at OG ever since the Packers let veterans Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera go. They have tried 10 different guys in the last couple of years and still can't get it right. They could have two rookie starters at OG on opening day -- LG Jason Spitz and RG Tony Moll. Brett Favre cannot feel great about his inside protection and we know when he is flushed out of the pocket and forced to throw on the run, Favre can make some mistakes.
• A rookie who might develop into a star is second-round pick Greg Jennings. The wideout has had a great camp and likely will play in at least the nickel package, and could be the punt returner on opening day. The organization knew Jennings had good physical skills when they drafted him, but the biggest surprise is how well he prepares. He already knows this West Coast offense and can line up at either the X or Y position. The coaches are much more comfortable with him on the field than they would be with most rookies.
• Ex-Raider Charles Woodson is really playing well and seems to have regained his quickness and playmaking ability. He and Al Harris give the Packers two big and physical press corners. Woodson could have a big year.
• The Packers lost eight games by seven points or less and five games by three points or less, and now they are going into the season with an untested placekicker in Dave Rayner. Also, 23 of the Packers' 29 interceptions happened when they were playing from behind and many came late in games. When you watch Favre on film, you can see him take chances with passes into coverage when he is trying to get his team back into games. McCarthy is determined to give Favre easier throws in the West Coast offense and cut down on mistakes but can Favre adjust to a more conservative style, especially with marginal playmaking talent around him?
• The Packers are really rolling the dice in their kicking game. They cut veteran PK Billy Cundiff and incumbent punter B.J. Sander. The new punter will be Jon Ryan, who proved in the Canadian Football League he is capable of producing in poor weather conditions. Rayner will be the placekicker because he has a stronger leg than Cundiff and has youth on his side. Neither one of these guys are a lock to give Green Bay solid production. On a team that may play in several close games, having this little experience in the kicking game is cause for concern. The front office may keep its eye on the waiver wire in the next two weeks.
• While WR Donald Driver has had a very consistent training camp and is Favre's favorite target, the concern is that the lack of a true No. 2 receiver will allow defenses to roll their coverages towards Driver, giving him a lot of double team looks. He is excellent on crossing routes, and is physical and tough in traffic. He is the best option the Packers have on third downs, but where is the vertical threat on this team that opens up the underneath routes?
• Monday night will be a good chance to look at the Packers run game, with Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport getting significant carries. Both are coming off serious injuries. Playing now is important to let them get quality work behind an offensive line that is implementing a new zone-blocking scheme.
• Rookie first-round pick A.J. Hawk really is starting to settle in as the starter at WOLB. He struggled at times in coverage situations early in camp, but he's made huge strides in the last 10 days and is showing he can cover tight ends or running backs in man-to-man or zone situations. The problem for the coaches is that if their upfront pass rush is not very productive, they will be tempted to blitz more. Hawk could be their best pass rushing LB, but they would lose him in coverage.
• Jagodzinski, defensive coordinator Bob Sanders or McCarthy have ever held their current positions before. There will be an adjustment time for coaches as well as players. It will be interesting to see whether this staff can control and gain the respect of the veteran players.
• The Packers' version of the West Coast offense will feature a lot of safe routes and low-risk passing plays. Look for quick slants and crossing routes designed to produce yards after the catch. We won't see as many vertical passes, which should cut down on the number of turnovers. Driver is a perfect fit in this scheme and could have a huge year, but will Favre buy into a conservative passing game?
• The key to the Packers' run game is the health and durability of Green. The 29-year old is coming off a serious torn quadriceps tendon injury, but has two things going for him -- his running style really fits in the new zone-blocking scheme and he is a free agent after this season, so he should be motivated to have a big year. Davenport and Samkon Gado can't be counted on to carry the run game, but they are quality backups.
• QB Carson Palmer is scheduled to see his first preseason action against Green Bay. Although he has worked very hard in his rehabilitation on his knee, he seems to be a little hesitant and tentative about live action. While the coaches want to be careful with Palmer and not rush him back, they also need to know if he will be ready for the September 10th opener at Kansas City. Most of the starters will play very little next week in the preseason finale at Indianapolis, so Palmer needs quality snaps Monday to give him confidence heading into the regular season.
• You really have to admire the offensive approach the Bengals utilize when you break them down on film. They have the personnel to attack defenses in a lot of ways. They love to come out throwing the football early in an up tempo style and if they can get a lead, they will go to a ball control run offense, which eats up a lot of the clock. They have the versatility to spread the field with multiple WR sets and love to use a no-huddle offense, but they can also use physical two-TE sets and pound the ball inside. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is very innovative in his play calling and is not afraid to gamble.
• The Bengals tinkered in the offseason with a 3-4 defensive front, partly because they felt so good about their talent level and depth at linebacker. However, the unit took a hit when MLB Odell Thurman was suspended for the first four games of the regular season because of a failed substance abuse test. For the first month of the season, veteran Brian Simmons will be forced to move to the middle. We might not see as much of the 34 look until Thurman gets back, and they have enough depth to play the scheme.
• Cincinnati really struggled with its interior run defense a year ago and head coach Marvin Lewis has been obsessed with getting more physical inside (the Bengals were 29th in the NFL in 2005 in average yards allowed per rush). They have a decent DT rotation right now of John Thornton, Shaun Smith, massive veteran Sam Adams and rookie Domata Peko, giving them four run stuffers. Even DEs Bryan Robinson and Justin Smith can play inside in some situations. That's much better depth than a year ago.
• This was the most opportunistic defense in the NFL a year ago, as it recovered 13 fumbles and recorded 31 interceptions for a whopping plus-24 turnover differential. In the last three seasons, Cincinnati is 17-1 in games in which it has more takeaways than turnovers. However, as good as they were at creating turnovers, the Bengals were also 26th in the league in passing yards allowed per game (223.1 yards). What they did is gamble and take a lot of chances, which leads to big plays, but also big mistakes. They will try to walk a fine line in 2006 by being aggressive, but still playing under control.
• As good as the Bengals' offensive line has been in recent years (OL coach Paul Alexander does a great job), four of their five starters are unrestricted free agents after the 2006 season. Keeping this group together will be a real challenge for the front office and there will be some tough decisions to make.
• A guy to watch closely is rookie fourth-round pick DT Domata Peko. He has 12 tackles and one sack in his first two preseason games, and he has the coaches really excited because of his consistency. He has the ability to play two- gap techniques well and can stack inside at the point of attack, but he can also get off blocks and penetrate. For a young player, he uses his hands really well and does not get tied up a lot. Ironically, tonight he will be matched up versus his older brother Tupe, who is a backup offensive guard for Green Bay.
• Cincinnati is starting to look like it has surprising depth at QB behind Palmer. Backup Anthony Wright has a good command of this offense, and has a great ability to scramble and avoid the rush. However, the big surprise was the performance last week of No. 3 QB Doug Johnson in the win over Buffalo. Johnson generated 17 points and looked very crisp as a passer, finishing with a 113.0 rating. Both quarterbacks did a good job with the no huddle offense and their progress should make the organization a little more comfortable in case Palmer is not ready on opening day.
• Placekicker Shayne Graham worked really hard in the offseason on getting stronger and more explosive in his lower body. It seems to be working because so far in the preseason he is regularly getting his kickoffs into the end zone, which had been a problem for him the past three seasons. These touchbacks not only help the cover teams, but also put the defense in good field position.
• Don't expect the Bengals to be overly active when NFL teams cut their rosters. This is a pretty deep team and unless they can improve the bottom end of their roster with an acquisition or two, don't expect a lot of change.
• So far in the preseason, the Bengals' cover teams have done a good job. They have drafted very well over the past several seasons and because of it, they have a lot of young players competing for roster spots. The best way to make this roster is to play well on special teams. Some guys might not play a lot at their position, but their production in the kicking game will determine if they stick on this team.
• When you watch Palmer on film, his ability to read defenses is really amazing. He sees the entire field and is adept at finding his secondary receivers if his primary guy is not open. He can make every throw and has a knack for finding the weak spot in opposing defenses. He had 32 TD passes a year ago compared to only 12 interceptions. He obviously has a great command of this offense. If he is healthy, he will have a great year. He is only eight months removed from his devastating knee injury, so playing Monday and next week will be critical to deciding whether he can start in Kansas City on opening day.
• A real key to the pass protection for Palmer is the blocking of tight end Reggie Kelly. He does an excellent job on the edge versus speed rushers and has the strength and feet to adjust to the blitz. Cincinnati likes its six-man protection schemes and although Kelly can catch the ball, his blocking is what makes him so valuable.
• DT Sam Adams continues to fight weight problems and his inability to get into playing shape hurts the DT rotation. He is improving his physical conditioning and if he is ready by opening day, he will be an effective two-down run stuffer, but his endurance will be questionable at his age.
• The first four games of the season might make or break the Bengals -- at Kansas City (September 10), vs. Cleveland (September 17), at Pittsburgh (September 24) and vs. New England (October 1). A healthy and productive Palmer will be necessary to get this team through this stretch.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called "The War Room."