The Green Bay Packers will hit the road again after a compelling win at home last week against the Washington Redskins. Week three has the Packers in Cincinnati to face the Bengals.
The NFC/AFC matchups are always intriguing because the opponents are not familiar with each other. It has also produced some of the more exciting games over the past several years. A few that come to mind: At Pittsburgh in 2009, at New England in 2010, at San Diego in 2011 and at Indianapolis last season. I happened to attend the San Diego and the Indianapolis games and I have no idea why I bought a “seat” because I was standing the entire time.
While there is a lot to be encouraged about from last week’s performance by the Packers, let’s keep in mind that the Bengals are not the Redskins. Cincinnati will be playing at home and has quite a bit more talent than does Washington. That talent runs on both sides of the ball.
The Packers bring in their own wealth of talent and will look to score a big road win heading into their very early bye week. Let’s take a look at the keys to this week’s game, from the Packers perspective.
Packers Offensive Line vs. Bengals Defensive Line
Games are won and lost up front and this contest will be a classic example of that. The quarterback and run game that can establish its rhythm early on will have a marked advantage over the other. While Aaron Rodgers may be light years ahead of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in terms of his ability and play, he still needs time to display both. Against a very active pass rush, the Packers will need to not only afford Rodgers the needed time to throw, but they need to keep him off his back.
The Packers offensive line comes into this game after a stellar recovery and performance last week. According to Pro Football Focus, each lineman graded positively and the two guards, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, both graded out highest. In fact, Lang was the highest-graded offensive player, ahead of Rodgers. While they turned in one of their best performances as a group last week, they likely will need to be even better this week.
The Green Bay offensive line had plenty of struggles in week one against the 49ers. The Bengals are capable of being equally disruptive. Last week against the Redskins, the Packers showed quite a bit of improvement and much better fundamentals in both run and pass blocking. They will all need to be in sync this week and just as sound. That also includes running back James Starks, who will get the start for the injured Eddie Lacy.
Cincinnati has arguably the best defensive tackle in the game in Geno Atkins. Atkins causes matchup nightmares for any offensive line and the Packers need to have a plan to keep him at bay. Rushing yards up the middle will come at a very high premium this week and I don’t expect to see many a dive call. In addition to Atkins are ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. Both are very good in their backside pursuit so while it’s wise to run away from the push, Packers linemen need to be aware of where these three are at all times and finish each play.
In terms of pure pass rush, Cincinnati’s defensive front will likely have success pushing into the pocket. The Bengals were constantly in Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s face on Monday night. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is not considered great, but the same can be said about the Packers’, at this point of the season. While Rodgers has success against the blitz, he obviously doesn’t fare as well with a defensive guy in his grill. It may be asking too much for the Packers to escape without giving up a single sack, but protection needs to be their top priority or this one could get ugly early. Remember the first half of the Seattle game last year?
Establish The Run
Easier said than done. The Packers have to try, as difficult as it may be, to get some sort of ground game going early in this one. If it becomes obvious that Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has abandoned the run, the Bengals pass rush can pin their ears back and the secondary will sit back in coverage all day. I don’t like those odds for Green Bay.
With the upcoming bye week, expect the Packers to take a very conservative approach to returning running back Eddie Lacy. Even so, the Packers announced Wednesday that James Starks will get the start at running back. The Packers have likely already moved on from Starks’ outstanding performance last week, as they know that this Bengals defense is very stingy in their run defense. Still, they have to try and get Starks outside the tackles and in space to try and pick up some grunt yards.
If Lacy is inactive, that hurts the Packers, as having a bigger and physical back is essential to matching the physicality Cincinnati will bring on defense. Still, Starks can run hard and he showed this last week when he delivered a punishing blow to Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather that knocked Meriweather out of the game. The key is going to be the push that the offensive line can get and Starks ability to make a few guys miss on tackles. Starks has never been a burner or the type of elusive runner that can do that on a consistent basis, but it is the only way that Green Bay will be able to stick with the run. If they are still running it well into the third quarter, that means things are likely going well for the Green & Gold.
Quick Pass, Protect The Ball & YACidy YAC YAC
While the optimist in me hopes that the offensive line can surprise us against a formidable Bengals pass rush, it’s a good idea to prepare for the flip side of that equation. Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game with the quick pass and the Packers use this effectively quite often. Cincinnati will be ready for this and may play more press coverage after watching the Packers rack up tons of yards after the catch last week. The Bengals will try to disrupt the timing and rhythm on the early downs and put pressure on Rodgers to pick up long yardage on third down.
When opposing defenses are prepared for these quick routes, the Packers have seen their share of struggles to move the ball. This is especially true if the run game is faltering. This would allow Cincinnati to move more of their outside linebackers into coverage to help defend the pass and eliminate the yards after catch. Green Bay’s receivers are very good, but without the ball in their hands, there can be no good done. When they do have the ball, it’s up to each to pick up some added yardage. The Bengals corners aren’t very big and a receiver like Nelson is very capable of muscling out a few extra yards. Cobb’s speed and elusiveness can also be a problem for Cincy if he can get into the second level.
It’s no secret that Green Bay wants the ball in Rodgers’ hands and he’s looking for his play makers in that of receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, and tight end Jermichael Finely. So far through two games, Packers receivers have not been charged with a dropped pass. It is a must that they reel the ball in and secure it this week. Cincinnati’s defense is opportunistic and will be looking to create turnovers. The Packers will absolutely shoot themselves in the foot if they give up free possessions to this Bengals team at home.
Contain A.J. Green, Giovanni Bernard and Bengals Tight Ends
Green has become one of the league’s best wide receivers and some are even deeming him the best. He’s tall and fast and presents a mismatch against most defensive backs out there. Down at the goal line, Green is especially dangerous. The Packers are probably staring at another game without safety Morgan Burnett and they will ask M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian and Chris Banjo (all 5’10”) to help on coverage with Green. That is already a mismatch. Green gets double teamed every week but when one half of the double team is marginal at best, he might as well be one-on-one with the corner. In that case, Green wins most of the time.
Bernard had a great showing on Monday night and had a touchdown on the ground and another through the air. He was effective as an outlet for Dalton and showed why Cincinnati was very wise to make him the first running back taken in this year’s draft. Almost a cross between Matt Forte and Darren Sproles, Bernard is a shifty runner who isn’t very big, but can find the crease and take it home. Green Bay’s linebackers have had more than their fair share of problems in pass coverage and that includes backs who sneak out of the backfield. A well-executed screen could be problematic for the Packers if they are too focused on the other offensive weapons. Given space, Bernard showed how elusive he can be.
When Cincinnati took tight end Tyler Eifert with their first round pick this year, they formed an instant dynamic duo, pairing him with Jermaine Gresham. Green Bay seems to have nothing but problems with opposing tight ends eating them up in the middle of the field and the Bengals will be looking to exploit that space this week. With added focus on Green and also Bernard, someone is going to get a favorable one-on-one matchup. If that happens to also be with a linebacker, then it spells big trouble for the Packers. Eifert had a nifty catch and run this past week and is capable of taking one long. Gresham has been one of Dalton’s favorite targets over the past two seasons and will surely see a few thrown his way this week. If Green Bay tries to counter the two-tight set with nickel coverage, they give up some size. If they leave in their base 3-4, they are giving up a lot more. Pick your poison and hope it doesn’t kill.
This was a huge issue for Green Bay in week one. They can’t afford to back themselves up and have to drive long for every score. At the outset and just in looking at this game on paper, yards figure to come at a premium. We may see more Randall Cobb at kick returner this week, as the Packers will look for every inch they can get in starting field position. If Jeremy Ross is back to return, I hope he has his knee pads in and that he puts them to good use.
No team wants to commit penalties and they work to be fundamentally sound to avoid them. But committing them during a punt return, kickoff, or at all are going to be the death of the Packers in this one. In tough road games, teams cannot afford to fall apart and become undisciplined. Cincinnati plays with a swagger and I can foresee them trying to get into the heads of the Packers. Green Bay needs to stay focused and not get drawn into hurting themselves.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: