For the first two weeks of the regular season the formula has been the same for the Cincinnati Bengals: stop the run, rush the quarterback, win on special teams and get a breakthrough performance on offense.
It's the same plan once again this week when the Green Bay Packers come to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
But this time around, completing each of those tasks becomes a little more challenging. In Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay brings arguably the best quarterback in the NFL to Cincinnati. Unlike in the first two games, the Packers also have a running back in James Starks who went beyond the 100-yard rushing plateau in his previous game.
A win can come for the Bengals, but they'll have to be as close to perfect in the aforementioned areas. They also will need to do one more thing: play a clean game. As complete an offensive, defensive and special-teams performance as they had in the opener against Chicago, a loss of composure and a few personnel-management issues combined to lead them to a three-point loss.
Along with keeping their cool, here are four other things the Bengals must do to beat the Packers:
1. Bend, don't break on Rodgers. Throughout his career, Rodgers has proven his ability to spread defenses and find his pass-catchers in zones where they can get lanes to pick up yards after the catch. The Packers lead the league in the yards-after-catch category this season. Last week, against Washington, Rodgers tied a team record by throwing for 480 yards. After watching film of that performance, the Bengals know that he's going to get his yards. They just have to limit them in certain situations. Third-down scenarios would be obvious ones in which stops become necessary. It will be incumbent, then, on the defensive line to get a push on Rodgers similar to the pressure it got on Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger on Monday night. If the Bengals can get pressure on Rodgers but prevent him from getting outside the pocket where he can create throw-on-the-run options, they may do just enough to limit his scoring opportunities.
2. Treat Cobb delicately. Cincinnati's pass defense has one particular statistic in its favor. The unit has the longest streak in the league in limiting 300-yard passers. No quarterback has gone beyond that mark on them since Week 2 last season. One key to keeping Rodgers under 300 yards will be to stifle his leading receiver as much as possible. That, too, isn't an easy task. Randall Cobb and his elusive, next-level speed have been a headache for defenses. Cincinnati's defensive backs will need to do what they can to keep in front of him and not let him exploit them with his quickness. The same goes for the Bengals' punt-coverage unit, which will want to replicate the Devin Hester treatment with Cobb. In Week 1 against Chicago, the group limited Hester to 1 yard on two punt returns.
3. Keep going with Gio. After putting the ball in rookie running back Giovani Bernard's hands five times in the opener, the Bengals gave it to him nine times Monday night. Two of those latter opportunities -- one a pass and one a run -- resulted in touchdowns. The Bengals' offense also opened up with Bernard on the field, as Cincinnati, on average, gained more than 5 yards per play when he was on the field as opposed to when veteran tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis was. Green-Ellis benefited from Bernard's more expansive role, too, watching his yards and carries increase, as well. If the Bengals want their offense to be successful from here on out, they'd be smart to keep going with Gio. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden recognizes this. Earlier this week, he told reporters he intended to discover ways to get the ball into his dynamic playmaker's hands more often.
4. Resume dink-and-dunk offense. As much as Bernard has given Cincinnati a spark and been the Bengals' version of Cobb, the team still appears to be most successful when it patiently works its way downfield. With a mix of the runs and short passes, Cincinnati carved up Pittsburgh's defense in its Week 2 win. The short passing game was particularly strong for quarterback Andy Dalton, who completed 17 of the 20 passes he attempted within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. One of those passes went to Bernard, and with the young back's speed, ended up becoming a 27-yard touchdown. Like Green Bay, Cincinnati has had its success with yards after the catch, too.