The Packers, buoyed by quarterback Aaron Rodgers' record-tying 480-yard passing performance, improved to 1-1 with a 38-20 win over Washington last Sunday. The Bengals also moved to 1-1 after being sparked Monday night by rookie running back Giovani Bernard’s two-touchdown effort in a 20-10 win over the Steelers.
This week, ESPN NFL Nation’s Coley Harvey and Rob Demovsky preview the Packers-Bengals game.
Coley Harvey: Rob, we’ll pose the first question to you. If Rodgers’ impressive outing last week against Washington was foreshadowing, then defenses across the NFL better buckle up for a long season. I mean, 480 yards? That’s special no matter who did it. Still, I have to ask since it seemed like Washington’s defense threw in the towel a little early: Were Rodgers’ yards simply a function of him being that in sync with his receivers, or was some of it a function of the Packers rightfully beating down a team that eventually didn’t want to be there? If it was mostly Rodgers and his receivers, how much do you think they can sustain this high-octane offense?
Rob Demovsky: I don’t know if Washington threw in the towel as much as it's just not a very good pass defense. The Eagles shredded them the week before, too. And then losing safety Brandon Meriweather to a concussion in the second quarter against the Packers didn’t help. One thing about Rodgers is he’s great at taking what the defense gives him. If a defense is going to play tight press coverage, he will work the ball down the field. If the defense is going to play soft and give cushion, he’ll use the underneath routes to get his guys the ball, which is what he did against Washington, and his receivers did the rest. He doesn’t force very many throws. This year, he seems even more in tune with his receivers. Randall Cobb destroyed the 49ers and Redskins from the slot. Also, Rodgers has a lot of trust in tight end Jermichael Finley right now.
However, it looks to like the Bengals might have the best pass defense the Packers have faced so far this season. What makes them so effective?
Harvey: I’d venture to say that it’s a combination of things. For starters, the Bengals have gotten decent push from their defensive line in the first two games. The unit’s two sacks, though, only tell part of the story. Against Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger on Monday, the group was in the backfield often, making it difficult for Big Ben to get comfortable in the pocket. That lack of comfort, combined with the defensive backs’ ability to stay with receivers, made it difficult for Roethlisberger to connect deep. Roethlisberger completed only four of his 15 attempts of 20 yards or more.
Stepping away from the passing game, I’m curious about Green Bay’s rushing attack. What made James Starks go off last week? And how confident are the Packers in him in the event Eddie Lacy doesn’t go this week?
Demovsky: Starks has always been a powerful, decisive runner, so it wasn’t a total shock to see him rush for 132 yards against the Redskins. After all, Starks was good enough to be their starter in Super Bowl XLV. In fact, he was their starter throughout that playoff run following the 2010 season and had a 100-yard game against the Eagles in the wild-card round. Starks’ problem over the years is that he could never stay healthy over long periods of time, but he’s been healthy since the beginning of training camp this year and waited for his turn. Packers coach Mike McCarthy was so satisfied with Starks’ performance against Washington that he’s going to start him against the Bengals regardless of Lacy’s status.
Speaking of running games, Giovani Bernard sure looked effective against the Steelers on Monday. What dynamic does he add to the Bengals’ offense?
Harvey: Good points about Starks. That’s the beauty of the NFL. When hot-shot youngsters come along, it’s so easy to forget how good and dominant older players once were -- and in Starks’ case, still can be.
I guess you could say the Bengals are going through a similar situation themselves right now with the rookie Bernard coming in and stealing attention from 28-year-old BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The elder running back had a rather sneaky-good evening Monday. While most attention was focused on Bernard’s two-score night, Green-Ellis rushed for 75 yards, picking up virtually all of them while running between the tackles.
Whenever the Bengals need an explosive play, though, they turn to Bernard. Two Packers who could be important in slowing him are linebackers A.J. Hawk and Clay Matthews. Football fans in Ohio are probably curious to know how important Hawk, in particular, is to Green Bay’s defense. What say you?
Demovsky: Hawk has been a steady player but has never really lived up to where he was drafted -- fifth overall in 2005 out of Ohio State. He plays in the Packers’ base and nickel packages but he comes off the field when they go to their dime package in obvious passing situations. But I’m sure he’ll be charged up for the rare opportunity to play in his home state.