It may have been ugly, but our beloved Packers started off the season the right way with a thrilling comeback against Chicago, 21-15. Whether you classify it as two great defensive performances or two awful offensive ones, the only important thing is that Green Bay is 1-0 in the division and tied with Minnesota for the NFC North.
This week, Green Bay has a significantly less imposing challenge in the Cincinnati Bengals. Do not take this statement as a sign of arrogance, because Cincinnati is still a dangerous team with weapons on offense and talented defenders; dangerous enough to exploit the weaknesses Green Bay exhibited on Sunday night.
Cincinnati is 0-1 after losing on a comically fluky 87 yard TD from Kyle Orton to
Brandon Marshall Leon Hall Brandon Stokely. They kept Denver in check for most of the game, and Carson Palmer guided the offense on a 11-play drive ending with Cedric Benson scoring the go-ahead TD with 38 seconds left. They were one ill-tipped pass away from winning, and I'd bet they feel that they have something to prove this week.
While they still have players with character issues, terrible luck, and their less-than-stellar reputation to shake off, these Bengals are no pushovers. Let's look at the main matchups for Week 2.
CIN rushing vs. GB defense: Cedric Benson is infamous for two things: vastly underperforming his fourth-overall draft status, and the second-most notorious boating incident in the NFC North's recent history. But all that aside, he is starting out on a tenuous path to redemption with the Bengals. After coming away from his legal troubles unscathed, the Bengals signed him in Week 5 of 2008 after DeDe Dorsey went on I.R. He was eventually promoted to starter, and helped propel the Bengals to a 3-0 finish behind his 423 all-purpose yards. Benson continued to display promise against Denver with 108 all-purpose yards and a 1-yard score.
At 5'11", 225 lbs, Benson uses his size to push his way through running lanes. He is also agile enough to prevent defenders from getting a clean look at him. His speed is above-average at best, but he's refined enough between the tackles to eat up yards at a respectable pace. Backing up Benson is Brian Leonard, a former draftee of St. Louis (and a proud Rutgers product). Leonard is not as strong as Benson, but he is by far a better athlete.
Up front, Cincinnati boasts a starting line comprised of players that I have never heard of (from left to right: Anthony Collins, 6'5", 315; Bobbie Williams, 6'4", 345; Kyle Cook, 6'3", 312; Evan Mathis, 6'5", 295; Andrew Whitworth, 6'7", 335). Whitworth and Williams are the unit's best players; the other three have very little scouting information at all. However, a minor X-factor here is the recent reactivation of rookie Andre Smith, who I assure you I have never heard of. Ever. Period. Will he play after holding out for most of training camp, promptly breaking his foot after signing the deal, and getting added to the roster today? I doubt it; his conditioning is nowhere near where it should be.
As for Green Bay's defense, we got a good look at what the 3-4 can do to corrall a well above-average RB like Matt Forte (55 yards on 25 carries). Green Bay only gave up 86 yards rushing as a whole, including 5 stops behind the line. While they certainly won't maintain the outstanding 2.8 ypc allowed all season, the run defense seems to be off to a good start. Johnny Jolly, Cullen Jenkins, and Ryan Pickett were constantly disrupting the offensive line, the linebacker rotation worked like a charm, and B.J. Raji should be able to play at least a dozen snaps.
Advantage: Green Bay. There's simply too many ways for the Packers to plug running lanes against Cincinnati's lackluster offensive line.
CIN passing vs. GB defense: Carson Palmer really hasn't been the same ever since Kimo von Oelhoffen accidentally shredded his knee in 2005. While he made a full recovery and has been starting since 2006, his mobility (which was already suspect) took a nosedive. If he gets time in the pocket, Palmer can make any throw to any receiver at any time. He is outstanding at reading coverages, going through progressions, looking off safeties, and following through on throws. But the minute the pocket collapses, Palmer gets himself into trouble. This was evident in the Denver game, as Palmer was sacked 3 times, losing 26 yards, and threw two interceptions in the game. He managed to pull the team together for what could have been a winning drive, showing that he certainly has the ability to get it done. But if he doesn't look like the second coming of Drew Bledsoe, I don't know what does.
At receiver, the Bengals took a hit when T.J. Houshmandzadeh chased the money all the way to Seattle. They replaced him with the slightly underrated Laveranues Coles, and they still have Chris Henry and Chad
Johnson Ochocinco. They also added Chase Coffman in the draft, who will be a decent receiving option at TE. Cedric Benson is able to create out of the backfield as well.
The Green Bay pass rush made life hell for Jay Cutler, forcing 4 interceptions, several more incompletions, 2 sacks, and 9 QB hits. However, Cutler was still able to find Earl Bennett, Desmond Clark, and Devin Hester for some nice completions (including Hester's TD). If Nick Collins is struggling with injury, as he was for a few series, the defense immediately becomes more passive and conservative in its playcalling. Thankfully, Collins was afflicted with cramps, which should not persist. Atari Bigby has a slightly more serious issue to deal with, but he's not exactly an adept coverage safety.
Advantage: Push. Green Bay has the talent to shut down opposing offenses, but Carson Palmer is just too good and has too many options. If the Bengals' offensive line falters, then this swings in Green Bay's favor by a wide margin.
GB rushing vs. CIN defense: On the one hand, Ryan Grant is healthy, the offensive line has a group of five established starters, and the oft-ineffective zone blocking scheme has been scaled back in favor of a more useful man-up scheme. While they certainly didn't blow anyone away with their run game, Grant exceeded my expectations with 61 yards on 16 carries, including a few 10+ yarders (one of which was called back by holding). Allen Barbre, for all his pass blocking struggles, actually shines as a run blocker, and the decision to start Jason Spitz over Scott Wells has proved to give the team more pop between the tackles.
On the other hand, the Cincinnati defense kept the Denver Broncos (usually a great running team) to 75 yards with no attempt going for more than 14 yards. The recent additions of Rey Maualuga and Roy Williams, combined with Keith Rivers' return from injury, have turned the Bengal defense into much more than just a paper tiger (lol, pun). Granted, the main reason the Broncos were so inept at rushing the ball was because Cincinnati was stacking 8 men in the box all day long, and Kyle Orton's deep ball is so erratic he literally needs help from opposing cornerbacks to complete a long throw.
Advantage: Push. If Cincinnati puts 8 men in the box, then they'll keep Green Bay under 100 yards rushing. But that would probably be a stupid thing to do, because...
GB passing vs. CIN defense: Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph are good coverage corners. Not great, but good. Chris Crocker is solid if unspectacular in pass coverage. But there's a weak link in the Bengals' secondary. A huge weak link. Two words: Roy. Williams. Roy L. Williams, to be exact, but the only thing the middle initial does is differentiate him from Roy E. Williams, because it sure doesn't help him cover receivers.
Don't get me wrong, Williams is excellent in run support. Even Troy Polamalu isn't as adept at breaking through blocks and making tackles near or behind the line of scrimmage. But he's awful in pass coverage. How bad? He needs to regularly be subbed out for Chinedum Ndukwe on passing downs. He reportedly lost nearly 25 pounds in the offseason to help improve his speed and quickness, but I don't think any amount of weight loss can make up for the massive amount of suck that has cursed Williams ever since he came into the league. I cannot wait for one of our receivers to be matched up with him on a deep route.
Their pass rush is better than advertised. Antwan Odom managed 2 sacks on Kyle Orton, with Jonathan Fanene adding another. This group isn't well known for their pressure, but they're not exactly starved for talent either; Tank Johnson and Dhani Jones are both effective at getting to the quarterback. It helps that they drafted Michael Johnson in the third round, a DE out of
Texas Georgia Tech that Brandon may have been pining for with Green Bay's second round pick.
Green Bay struggled mightily with Chicago's pass rush, which kept them from getting anything going in the passing game until the end of the fourth quarter. Four sacks and several additional hits kept Aaron Rodgers out of his rhythm, and both Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson were struggling with drops. However, Rodgers was able to avoid any costly mistakes (discounting the safety, which was partly his fault) and showed off decent escapability when he had an opening. He made the throws he needed to make, and it came together at the end. I expect his deep ball to be much improved by Sunday.
Advantage: Green Bay. Antwan Odom is no Adewale Ogunleye, and Rodgers and company (should have) learned from his struggles against Chicago. If Cincinnati tries to stack 8 in the box, expect Rodgers' deep ball to be much better calibrated than in the opener.
Preliminary verdict: I'm not one for predictions, so I won't waste your time with picking a winner and an arbitrary final score. I can say that Green Bay matches up very well with the Bengals and, if they can force Carson Palmer into mistakes (a tall order), contain Chad Ochocinco and Cedric Benson (a slightly shorter order), and take advantage of openings in the defense (a much more reasonable expectation), the Packers are in good shape to take the win.