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Packers-Bengals: 5 things to watch

By By Jason Wilde
Published On: Dec 24 2013 07:06:07 AM CST
Updated On: Sep 22 2013 01:15:35 AM CDT
Green Bay Packers

THE BASICS

The teams:  The Green Bay Packers (1-1) vs. the Cincinnati Bengals (1-1).

The time:  Noon CDT Sunday.

The place: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati.

The TV coverage:  FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).

The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in booth and Pam Oliver on the sideline.

The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 81-43 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Bengals’ Marvin Lewis is 80-85=1 (including 0-4 in the postseason) as coach of the Bengals and as an NFL head coach.

The series:  The Bengals lead the all-time regular-season series, 6-5, including 3-1 in Cincinnati. The Bengals won the last meeting, on Sept. 20, 2009 in Green Bay, and the last game in Cincinnati, a 21-14 victory on Oct. 30, 2005.

The rankings: The Packers’ top-ranked offense is No. 16 in rushing and No. 2 in passing. Their 29th-ranked defense is No. 17 against the run and No. 30 against the pass. The Bengals’ 12th-ranked offense is tied for No. 17 in rushing and is No. 13 in passing. Their seventh-ranked defense is No. 7 against the run and No. 14 against the pass.

The line:  The Packers are favored by 3 points.

The injury report: 

Packers – Out: S Morgan Burnett (hamstring), CB Jarrett Bush (hamstring), CB Casey Hayward (hamstring). Doubtful:  FB John Kuhn (hamstring). Questionable: RB Eddie Lacy (concussion). Probable: TE Jermichael Finley (toe), DT Johnny Jolly (neck), G T.J. Lang (back), CB Tramon Williams (groin)

Bengals – Out:  CB Brandon Ghee (concussion), DE Robert Geathers (elbow; on injured reserve). Doubtful:  CB Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring), G Mike Pollak (knee). Questionable:  OT Anthony Collins (knee), S Jeromy Miles (hamstring), CB Adam Jones (abdomen). Probable:  RB Giovani Bernard (hamstring); DE Carlos Dunlap (thigh), DE Wallave Gilberry (knee), WR Marvin Jones (foot), TE Alex Smith (illness).

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Thinning the herd:  The Packers decided not to promote practice-squad running back Michael Hill to the 53-man roster Saturday, which meant one of two things: Either Lacy, who did not practice all week, will be active and ready to play, or they simply decided to take their chances with only two healthy running backs – would-be starter James Starks, who is coming off a 132-yard rushing performance last week against Washington, and rookie Johnathan Franklin, who struggled in training camp and has yet to play a snap from scrimmage.

McCarthy, though, seemed more concerned with the prospect of having just two running backs active than with the idea of playing Lacy without practicing him all week, saying “it’s not ideal for a rookie to go through the week without any preparation and then play in the game,” but after playing with just two running backs in a 2011 loss at Kansas City, McCarthy doesn’t want to go down that road again. His ideal scenario, one would think, would have Starks and Franklin handling the work and staying healthy, leaving Lacy in uniform but on the sideline.

The greater issue, though, could be the loss of Kuhn. Not only is Kuhn the Packers’ best blocker when it comes to picking up blitzes on third down, but he’s also the only fullback on the roster.

In pass protection, McCarthy said Starks was awarded a game ball for more than just his rushing effort, but also for his pass protection work. Nevertheless, he has had his troubles in recognition in the past, and Franklin was awful in the preseason finale at Kansas City in that role, whiffing twice on blitzers.

Meanwhile, McCarthy said during the week that he views the tight end and fullback positions as interchangeable, and they’ll have to be with Kuhn unlikely to play. While Andrew Quarless has motioned into the backfield and lined up there before – including on Starks’ 32-yard touchdown run last week against the Redskins – there’s still an adjustment to be made.

“It’s different. It’s different for him blocking in-line as opposed to in the backfield,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “There’s more space. There’s a little more to negotiate through the offensive line to get on the right guy. But it’s something we’ve practiced and always have here. Tight ends and fullbacks can do the same types of jobs and this is a group of guys that can do it. You try to cover your butt a little bit and make sure everybody can do a little bit of everything.”

Asked if having Quarless in the backfield will alter what the Packers do, Kuhn replied, “We don’t really have to change much in the game plan this week. Drew has been mainly the guy who – when I’m out of the game or we’re in a sub situation or we’re in two-tight end situations he’s more or less the lead blocker and he does a good job with that. So I think the game plan this week isn’t going to really get too creative. It’s going to be much of the same things we’ve run before.”

Quarless, meanwhile, is happy for the opportunity after missing all of last season following his 2011 knee injury.

“It’s something I’ve done and I’ve been doing,” Quarless said. “(On Starks’ TD), it’s funny because I didn’t feel too good about the block. It was a good block, but I really pride myself on being dominant. I want to put people on their butt every play if I’m blocking. I’m not satisfied unless he’s on the ground and he’s on his back.”

Double trouble : The Bengals certainly aren’t the first team to see potential in having two talented tight ends. The Packers did it during their 1996 Super Bowl run with Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson, and the New England Patriots seemingly had a revolutionary offense before Rob Gronkowski’s injury problems and Aaron Hernandez’s, um, legal troubles. Nevertheless, the Bengals’ tandem of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert – whom the Bengals drafted in the first round of the 2010 and 2013 NFL drafts, respectively – will pose a huge challenge to the Packers, who’ve had their problems defending the tight end during Dom Capers’ tenure as defensive coordinator.

While wide receiver A.J. Green leads the team with 15 receptions for 203 yards and two touchdowns, Gresham is second with 11 receptions for 101 yards and Eifert has eight catches for 113 yards, including a 61-yarder against Pittsburgh on Monday night.

“Everybody in the league is looking for versatile tight ends because it makes them harder to defend,” Capers said Friday. “What they do with them is they can go with two-tight end personnel and run their two-back offense where they put the second one in there at the fullback position. Or, they can go two tight ends and run their three-receiver offense where one of them is out in a wide receiver position. So what they’re doing, they don’t want to let you know by their personnel whether they’re going to be in a two back, or they’re going to have both of them at the line of scrimmage (tight to the tackles), or if they’re going to have one of them out as a wide receiver. So it gives them more versatility.

“It’s a matchup deal. You have to be able to match up with them, and you’ve got to be ready for all those different formations because you know they’re going to be looking for the matchups.”

It also gives quarterback Andy Dalton more passing options than just Green, who is one of the league’s best deep threats.

“It is nice having both of those guys. You feel like with the matchups you can get with the different formations, with putting guys in different spots, we feel like it's really going to help us out,” Dalton said. “It's good to have. The personnel that's going in this year might be a little different than it was the last couple of years. It's all because of the matchups we can get.”

The responsibility of covering those tight ends will vary, with the Packers’ inside or outside linebackers sometimes getting the nod, their safeties at other times.

“Depending on the defense, we’re on those guys, no matter who they are,” Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. “They’re both fine tight ends and they’re both good blockers too. Coach Dom calls the defense, and we’re either on them or we’re not. And so we’ll do our job.”

Meanwhile, the Packers must figure out what to do with Green, who will get chances to beat them over the top. Tramon Williams matched up with Green last year in preseason play, but the Packers aren’t matching Williams this season.

Without Burnett at safety, the corners will get help from M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian or Chris Banjo over the top on some plays, which may or may not be helpful.

“We’ve got to defend the vertical throws, because they’re going to take their shots down the field,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “No. 18 (Green) is a very dominant player, but Dalton’s not afraid to get it to the other guys. They’re involved, and if you take 18 away, those other guys can beat you, too. They’ve got some really good skill people. Their backs, they’re not big, huge guys but they run hard and they’re good in space. So when we get in space, we have to make sure we can tackle them. We’ve got to have a complete game. Not only in the run phase but the pass phase as well, we’ve got to be sharp, because they thrive on those – I think they were second in the league last year in 40-yard pass plays. And a big part of that is 18. We have to make sure we contain him and then make sure we keep the other guys at bay.”

Neal gets a feel: The Mike Neal linebacker experiment continues, with mixed results – never more mixed than last week, when Neal had his first career interception on a play where he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing.

“That’s falling into a pile of poop and coming out smelling like roses, that’s what that is,” Greene said with a laugh about Neal being in the wrong place at the right time. “But we’re not robots, we’re human, and we make mistakes out there. So I gave him a minus, obviously, for the play, but I gave him a positive for the impact play. Because anytime you get an interception, the coaching point is, what he did wrong is coachable, but what he did do was make a play. Instead of nutting up and fumbling that tipped ball, he took advantage of the opportunity, he made a good play, a critical interception, secured it and made sure we gave the ball to the offense. There’s a lot of positives in that dark cloud.”

There’s also a lot of positives to Neal’s hybrid role. He’s played 81 plays through two games, splitting his time between outside linebacker and defensive lineman in the dime package. Although he’s yet to record a sack, he does have five quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.

“I like what we’ve got going now with him,” Capers said. “Because I think what you’d rather have is, to get to where we want to get, you have a lot of guys that have a certain role. Mike Neal, if you play him 30, 35 plays – really good plays that give you something, to me, in this day and age with everything being so specialized, the more you can get into that the more guys can get to where they can develop a real expertise for what you’re asking them to do.”

Neal, who was listed at 294 pounds as a defensive end but is thought to be 275 pounds now, is still learning how to drop into coverage and do other things the linebacker position requires but seems to be catching on.

“We were playing him inside, he was probably better on the move than anchoring in there on those 325-pound linemen. He has plenty of strength, but I think he’s more natural at his size right now than trying to bulk up to 290, 295,” Capers said. “I think we’re taking steps to where I saw him impact the game last week.”

Getting after the quarterback:  Speaking of the pass rush, the Packers enter the game with only three sacks after finishing with 47 (fourth-most in the NFL) last season. The problem is that it’s hard to gauge just how effective the rush has been because of the way the defense has played the first two quarterbacks on the schedule. Nevertheless, McCarthy didn’t want to hear about it on Friday. When asked if, because Dalton is a more traditional pocket passer, the Packers might be able to unleash their rush in a more traditional fashion, the coach bristled.

“I don’t know why in God’s name we’d even talk about that in the paper, what our pass rush plan is,” McCarthy replied. “Let’s be real here, too. Andy Dalton’s a good athlete. We’re acting like he’s going to stand back there and we’re going to rush right at him. I mean, that’s not the case.

“Football is not played on a chessboard. We need to get after the passer whether we’re in a jet rush or a transition rush. It doesn’t matter. That’s ‘Excuse Football.’ Whatever our assignment is when they’re passing the ball, or we’re in pass coverage, we need to get that done.”

Despite McCarthy’s reaction, it was a valid question and one his defensive assistants acknowledged has been a factor, along with his top pass rusher, Clay Matthews.

“I think it’s understanding who you’re going against in weeks prior,” said Matthews, who has one sack this season. “Obviously when you see those mobile quarterbacks, those read-option quarterbacks, pistol, whatever you want to call them, and with our game plan was specifically to keep them in the pocket. ... Hopefully this week presents us an opportunity to really pin our ears back and get after the quarterback. Obviously that starts by shutting down the run, and they obviously have a great running game and showed that on Monday night.”

The Packers were credited with two sacks on Colin Kaepernick in the opener, and while Davon House had their own sack last week, Pro Football Focus had them for 10 quarterback hurries and one quarterback hit on Robert Griffin III, who watched Capers send five or more rushers on 25 percent of his dropbacks.

“I’ll just say this: I felt a lot better about our pressure last week,” Capers said. “I thought it affected the game where the first week was a little bit unique because you’re not going to get wild with pressure. So we had two sacks, but we weren’t wild with pressure that week. We played more our style of game last week to where if you go back and look at those first eight third downs, he’s got people right in his face. He’s throwing where he can’t step into his throws. I think it really impacted the game.”

First things first:  Aaron Rodgers was unaware of the stat when it came up at his locker on Wednesday. The Packers quarterback was asked how he’d rate the first-down production so far this season.

“I’d have to look at the stats, I’m not sure what the stats are,” Rodgers said.

“You’re No. 1 in the league,” came the reply from WFRV-TV reporter Ryan Rodig.

“Are we?” Rodgers said with a laugh. “Yeah, it’s pretty good then.”

Indeed it is. Entering this week, the Packers were the best in the league on first down, averaging 8.05 yards per first-down play. More importantly, the Packers view a 4-yard gain as “winning the down,” and of their 64 first-down plays this season, 34 have resulted in gains of 4 yards or more.

Over the past three seasons, the Packers have finished ninth in the NFL in first-down gains in 2010 (5.75-yard average), sixth in 2011 (6.29-yard average) and, troublingly, 30th last year (4.79-yard average).

McCarthy was dismissive of the statistical improvement – “Statistics, at this point, I don’t think illustrate the characteristics or identity of your football team,” he said – it was significant that the Packers had such success on first down last week. Rodgers completed 13 of 16 passes for 193 yards on first down, although there was also a 12-yard sack and a holding penalty. Running the ball, the Packers gained 45 yards on 10 attempts but also had a holding penalty.

”The key for us is getting us in third-and-manageable (situations),” Rodgers said when asked about the significance of first-down success. “I think we’re 4 of 10 both games on third down, which is not as good as we want to be obviously but we’ve obviously done a good job on first and second down because to only have 10 third downs each game is good for us. Obviously you’d like to convert a few more of those, but first-down and second-down production are very important to this offense.”

THE PREDICTION

This is a tough call. As productive as the Packers offense has been in the season’s first two weeks – including last week’s 580-yard explosion, which ranks second in franchise history – this is their third straight game against a 2012 playoff team so it’s no easy task. The Packers have been good at entering bye weeks on a high under McCarthy – they’re 5-2 in pre-bye games under him and an impressive 14-5, tied for best in the NFL, in pre-bye games dating back to 1994 – but the Bengals’ varied offense and impressive front four will challenge them. While there’s no doubt they’ll be a better team late in the year as their young guys improve, the guess here is that this is another growing pain experience.  Bengals 27, Packers 21. (Season record: 2-0)

– Jason Wilde

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