The grudge matches are over. In the first two weeks of this season the Green Bay Packers were forced to confront teams that directly stopped Super Bowls in 2017 and 2015.
Next on the docket is an obscure franchise that the Packers don’t play very often and no one outside of Ohio or Kentucky thinks about much: the Cincinnati Bengals.
But these Bengals are significant. They have the second-longest tenured coach in the league (Marvin Lewis, 15 years), and they are one of only four teams to have made five consecutive playoff appearances this decade (the others are the Packers, Patriots, and Seahawks).
They are also the only team out of 31 that Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers have not beaten yet.
In Rodgers’ second year as a starter (and McCarthy’s fourth as coach) the Bengals came to Lambeau and sacked Aaron six times, winning 31-24. Four years later the Packers had a 16-point second half lead in Cincinnati, yet found a way to lose 34-30. The key play was a Johnathan Franklin fumble on fourth and short.
Many of the principals from that 2013 clash remain. Franklin retired later that year due to a neck injury, but Nick Perry was rushing off the right edge, Mike Daniels had a 4th quarter sack to stop a drive, and Aaron Rodgers’ top two targets were Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
For the Bengals, their quarterback, #1 wide receiver, 3rd down running back, and defensive ends remain unchanged from that cursed game so long ago.
SCOUTING THE BENGALS
On paper, this 2017 Cincinnati team ought to be better than it’s performed on the field these first two weeks. They have scored three field goals and zero touchdowns in eight quarters so far. True, this was against two great defenses—the Ravens and Texans—but nine points in eight quarters?
Coach Lewis has no contract extension beyond this season for the first time in a decade, and his employment uncertainty is flowing downhill. Two weeks into the season he already fired the offensive coordinator, a man that has been by his side since he first took the Cincinnati job in 2003.
The guy he fired, Ken Zampese, had been the QB coach for Carson Palmer last decade and #14 Andy Dalton this decade. He is now replaced as offensive coordinator by the same man who took his job as QB coach two years ago, Bill Lazor.
Zampese’s—and now Lazor’s—biggest problem is that Dalton is not good at football. The Bengals are stacked at all the other skill positions on offense, but the guy with the ball in his hand on every play is terrible.
#18 A.J. Green is not Julio Jones, but he’s close. He’s got the size and athleticism; he just isn’t as fast. The other starting wide receiver, #11 Brandon LaFell, is a lot like Mohamed Sanu, the big possession guy that torched us again last week. LaFell was brought to Cincinnati from New England the same offseason that Sanu left Cincinnati for Atlanta.
The running back trio is one of the best units in the league. The nominal starters are last year’s leading rusher #32 Jeremy Hill and rookie second-rounder #28 Joe Mixon, but the shiftiest and most explosive back is third-down specialist #25 Giovanni Bernard.
When healthy, #85 Tyler Eifert is an elite tight end, but so far this season he appears to be grabbing his back, limping, and wincing even more than Rob Gronkowski.
The Bengals will use this year’s #9 overall draft pick, speedster #15 John Ross, and undrafted second year Badger, #12 Alex Erickson, on jet sweeps. The third-string tight end/halfback/jackknife #89 Ryan Hewitt will often be the trap blocker on such misdirection plays. He’s got a mullet so you can’t miss him.
The offensive line is middling to biscuits, but the defensive line is a tenacious bunch of old Pro-Bowlers. Ends #96 Carlos Dunlap and #90 Michael Johnson, along with tackles #97 Geno Atkins and #92 Pat Sims, were all high draft picks seven, eight, or nine years ago—and are still putting their hands down in the mud and getting after it.
Two rookie mid-round draft picks, #99 Jordan Willis and #58 Carl Lawson, will be rotating in to provide even more pass rush and run stuff.
The Sam, Mike, and Will linebackers are average in pass coverage—especially with Vontaze Burfict suspended for one more week—but do pack some punch at the line of scrimmage against the run.
The secondary is ripe for the picking. If Aaron has time to throw, corners #27 Dre Kirkpatrick, #21 Darqueze Dennard, and #24 Pacman Jones will not be able to cover for long. The safeties, like the linebackers, are better vs. run than pass.
HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP
Against the Falcons, the Packers were sabotaged by the officials on four plays—all within five minutes of game clock on either side of halftime. First was the “ghost” pick play where the Falcons switched their coverage but Martellus Bennett still somehow got called for picking a guy that had no intention of going elsewhere.
Then the Falcons scored a minute later with TE Austin Hooper actually picking Morgan Burnett, yet this non-imaginary illegal play was not called, rightly pushing McCarthy into a plaintive plea for justice.
Coming out of halftime, the officials also lost track of their forwards from their backwards, and somehow declared an incomplete pass to be a fumble, just because it bounced funny.
.@VicBeasley3 gets to Aaron Rodgers…
It's a fumble!
And @DesmondTrufant picks it up for the TD! #InBrotherhood #GBvsATL pic.twitter.com/tlZjNnnzY7
— NFL (@NFL) September 18, 2017
Those sequence of calls gave the Falcons 14 points while also taking away a chance for the Packers to score before halftime.
Then, just to add salt to the wound, the officials cost the Packers another 4 points by calling a pick on Geronimo Allison that by itself was a reasonable call, but in the context of the uncalled pick on Austin Hooper cried out for equal treatment under the law.
The Packers think the officials were out to get them—especially on pick plays—and the video evidence clearly supports their paranoia. And yet there are ways to obstruct cornerbacks without even getting close to a whistle, and the Ravens demonstrated how that can be done against the Bengals in week one:
The Bengals had eight men on the line, with no safeties deep, and the Ravens’ tight end used his own defender to pick the cornerback, freeing up Jeremy Maclin for a slant turned 50-yard TD.
This play was also one of the only weak defensive moments for the Bengals in the first two games. As bad as their offense was, their defense—especially the front seven—was fierce and effective. However, they were going against Joe Flacco and Deshaun Watson, meaning their pass defense was not tested like it will be against Aaron Rodgers.
Even without healthy starters at tackle and wide receiver, the Packers should be able to pass early and often against this secondary—assuming Martellus Bennett does not repeat his four drop performance.
On the other side of the ball, stopping the Bengals’ skill position players will be a challenge, but as good as Kevin King looked last week, I expect him to shadow Green on Sunday and probably produce a few deflections if not an interception.
As always, the health of Mike Daniels will be crucial to our performance in the trenches. The last two weeks were evidence of his importance, and his prognosis for Sunday does not look promising. Against the Falcons’ heavy formations in the second half, the Packers were down to just the minimum three healthy lineman for their base sets. This inability to rotate at this demanding position contributed to the final six minutes of humiliation last week, when we knew they were going to run it and still couldn’t stop them.
Expect Ricky Jean Francois to be re-signed and a healthy Montravius Adams to finally be active this Sunday, so there will be some relief for Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, and Quinton Dial.
With Nick Perry also out now with hand surgery, we should also get our first heavy doses of Ahmad Brooks and Chris Odom crashing in off the edge.
SHAWANO MEANS SOUTH
The land ancestors of the Cincinnati region, where the Licking River meets the Ohio, were an Algonquin-speaking people known as the Shawnee. It was from these Ohio Shawnee that Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet Tenskwatawa came from. They would lead an armed struggle against the United States that helped cause the War of 1812 and also prevented the Americans from reaching their goal during that war of annexing Lower Canada.
The Algonquin language is also spoken on the Great Lakes by the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Menominee. If you ever wondered how Shawano got its name, it’s likely because the lake—which is less than an hour’s drive west of Green Bay—is south of everything else that is “Up North.”
Shawnee, meanwhile, comes from a similar Algonquin root word meaning “warm weather” which is more likely the further south you go. Cincinnati, on the north bank of the Ohio, is about as far south as you can travel while still—technically—being in the North.
If you’d like to hear more talk about why the Packers lost last week, and how they’re going to win next week, plus a deep dive into the ancient history of Cincinnati, listen to the latest episode of The PackerVerse below.