Bengals Are Dangerous, But Ultimately Harmless

Posted September 22nd, 2017 @ 03:09pm

With their tails planted squarely between their legs, the Packers return home for a two-games-in-five-days stretch where we hope they will take care of business against two winless teams and get healthy for the tough two game trip that will follow. The Bengals come in embarrassed, angry and with three extra days to think about their 0-2 start.

The Bengals do provide some warning signals and we'll get to that shortly, but let's start with who we think will miss the game this Sunday. Starting on defense, Nick Perry is definitely out after having what appears to be finger surgery (it sounds like it shouldn't sideline him for too long). It looks like Mike Daniels, Davon House and Kentrell Brice are long shots to play. In Mike McCarthy's press conference on Friday he said they would have a much clearer idea of who will suit up at Saturday's practice. None have been on the field this week.

Offensively, Bryan Bulaga appears to be on track to return, but David Bakhtiari doesn't look ready (my guess is he misses both of these home games, with the hope that he's back for the Cowboys game). Jordy Nelson has practiced this week and looks to be good to go, but Randall Cobb's shoulder is a concern--McCarthy did sound vaguely optimistic that he can go, but he'll likely be a gametime decision.

So in come the Bengals, the only team McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers have yet to beat; a dangerous team that has made the playoffs the last five years, but has gotten off to a terrible start, losing twice at home and scoring a total of nine points. Following last Thursday's debacle against Houston, they fired their offensive coordinator.

So to add two the fact that you're facing an uncommon opponent, you also get a new play caller who's had a few extra days to put his own spin on things. With dangerous tight end Tyler Eifert likely out with yet another injury, I expect speedy rookie John Ross to be more of a factor--he's had one touch so far and he fumbled. They'll find a way to get the ball in his hands (Update: Ross, along with Eifert, have been ruled out). I also expect rookie Joe Mixon to have a bigger role. It's been a three-headed running attack so far. Look for Jeremy Hill to see his role diminish, and Mixon and Giovanni Bernard to be featured.

Andy Dalton has looked like a different guy so far and some of that could be his new-look offensive line, which lost leaders Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to free agency. The replacements have been overmatched by two tough defensive fronts in the Ravens and Texans. With Perry and (likely) Daniels out, the Packers won't provide as stiff a test. Dalton will test the Pack's young secondary by looking early and often to AJ Green, one of the game's top receivers. But with no Eifert and the pedestrian Brandon LaFell on the other side, the Pack should be able to help out Kevin King, who will likely be tasked with covering Green, with House ailing.

The Pack's late signing of Ahmad Brooks will pay immediate dividends. With Perry sidelined, Brooks returns from a concussion to start alongside Clay Matthews at OLB. None of us are quite ready for the Kyler Fackrell era to start, so having Brooks out there is huge, especially against a team that will try to move the ball on the ground and keep Rodgers and company off the field.

On the other side of the ball, much has been made this week about Ty Montgomery's usage: he's carried the biggest load of any RB in the game. Look for the Pack to work in Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones a bit this week. With Nelson and Cobb uncertain to go, Geronimo Allison figures to have a bigger role these next two weeks. And we'll watch Martellus Bennett closely: four drops in 11 targets last Sunday was not acceptable. Maybe he's still not totally comfortable in this scheme; but Kendricks and Rodgers are waiting in the wings if he doesn't figure things out.

The Bengals defense has been very solid through two weeks, fifth in points and allowing just 33 point through two games. They've featured two run-heavy offenses (63% run plays so far, in a league where it's 61% passes) and will see a far different style at Lambeau. Their leader, Vontaze Burfict is serving the final game of his three-game suspension, so we won't have to deal with his crazy on-field antics. But they do have the best D-lineman this side of Aaron Donald, in Geno Atkins, who will command constant double teams, putting more pressure on the uncertainty at tackle.

Look for Rodgers to attack Pac Man Jones, still a reliable corner at 34, but one who gambles like few others.  I gotta believe Davante Adams will beat him deep at least once. Rodgers is the clear-cut difference maker in this matchup. Coming off a loss, coming back home and knowing this is the last team for him to beat. He'll be sharp and will make enough plays for the Pack to take care of business on a steamy September Sunday.

Packers 24  Bengals 17

I'll be watching the game at the Park Tavern, in St. Louis Park on Sunday. Come on out, if you can. There are always great food and drink specials and giveaways. Walk through the bowling alley, to the 11th Frame bar in back. That's where we'll be.

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U-G-L-Y. But Maybe Pack Has an Alibi.

Posted September 18th, 2017 @ 12:09pm

When it was announced that the Packers would be without both starting tackles for their showdown with the Falcons, I had one overriding thought: let's just get Rodgers through the game in one piece.

Heading into the season, offensive line depth was maybe the biggest roster concern. Little did we know it would be tested this early. Asking Kyle Murphy and Justin McRay to step up in this spot on this stage was too much to ask. They weren't disasters by any means, but it was clear from the start that Rodgers would be running for his life for much of the night. The play of the backup tackles was not the biggest problem on this night. The play of the cornerbacks was.

When Jordy Nelson and Mike Daniels exited in the first quarter, it was obvious this would not be the Pack's night. But as ugly as it was early, they were in the game until late in the first half when the game turned on one play. Trailing 17-7, and backed up inside their own ten, Rodgers found Randall Cobb for a big gain that put the ball around midfield. But Martellus Bennett was called for a pick, which wiped out the play. It was a borderline call (Allison's similar offense later was much more obvious) and it was followed up by a rare Rodgers interception that led to a score and put the game out of reach.

As frustrating as it was to watch the offense struggle without Bakhtiari and Bulaga, there were some bright spots on that side of the ball. Ty Montgomery is showing that he will be a dual threat--though he'll need more than ten carries a game. And Davante Adams made some big catches--his touchdown was a thing of beauty.

The most disappointing aspect of the game has to be the play of the defense, which was shredded almost as thoroughly as it was in last year's title game. No doubt the loss of Daniels early was critical; he's the emotional leader and best player for the defense. But you have to be able to withstand injuries and the team didn't on this night. Most upsetting was the play of Randall and Rollins who reverted to the 2016 versions of themselves.

We knew the Falcons would make it a point to get the ball to Julio Jones early, after targeting him only five times in the opener. But just like last year, the Pack had no answer as he carved them up right from the start. Mohammed Sanu also had a big night as the Pack's corners struggled. The one bright spot was the play of rookie Kevin King, who got the call when Randall got yanked. King showed he belonged and deserves to start from this point forward. With home games against the Bengals and Bears coming up, it's the perfect time to get him acclimated to the role.

What we learned on this night is that the defense still has a long way to go against elite offenses, especially on a fast track. The development of King and fellow rookie Josh Jones gives us hope that the unit will get better as the season goes along. And getting Daniels back on the field is an absolute must.

Now we'll wait and see if the tackles are able to go on Sunday and we'll wait to hear about the injuries to Nelson, Cobb, Daniels, House and Brice. With two games coming up in a five day span, the team is likely to be very careful, knowing a mini bye will follow, leading up to tough road tests in Dallas and Minnesota.

Going into the season, I thought the Pack needed to start 4-2, which meant winning their home games and then winning one of the three tough road matchups. They failed their first road test; now we'll see what a dash of humility, along with a hopeful return to health will mean when they head back on the road in a couple of weeks.

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Can Pack Tackle Their Demons in Atlanta?

Posted September 15th, 2017 @ 03:09pm

Just like a year ago, the Pack opens its road schedule in a shiny, brand new stadium. This time around, it's the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta, where the Falcons will play a home game under stars for the first time since 1991.

It's got everything you want: a rematch of the NFC title game, a matchup of two of the past three MVPs and plenty of star power. It's also the third meeting between these teams in less than a year--with every game in Atlanta.

This one looks to be the toughest on this year's schedule, with the Pack playing the unusual role as an underdog. The biggest storyline is the health of the Pack's tackles. As I write this on Friday morning, it sounds like Bryan Bulaga will miss his second game (he's been battling the flu, along with his ankle injury). News of David Bakhtiari's hamstring injury caught us off-guard; he suffered the injury when he did the splits on a play against the Seahawks. He's been able to practice, though he's been limited. We'll hope he's able to go and finish, or this one might not be close. With Jason Spriggs sidelined indefinitely with a hamstring injury, the Pack was forced to activate Adam Pankey as the emergency third (or second) tackle this week.

Which brings us to this week's roster changes: out go Francois and Gunter and in come Pankey and Geronimo Allison. Think about it: the guy who was tasked with covering Julio Jones in the title game (he held him nine catches, 180 yards and two TDs) is no longer on the roster. We'll find out Sunday night if the Pack's D has an answer this time around. Francois became expendable when Quinton Dial signed and Montravius Adams healed up.

With the injury issues at tackle, the Pack's offensive game plan should look a little different. I expect Ty Montgomery to get 25-30 touches. The Bears averaged 6.6 yards per carry against the Falcons D last week, a unit that's speedy but undersized. You can pound away at them and wear them down. They also give up lots of yards to running backs as receivers. Bears rookie Tarik Cohen caught eight balls for 47 yards last week. Last season, they gave up the most yards and receptions to backs--James White was historically good against them in the Super Bowl.

Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson saw most of the targets last week, but this feels like a Davante Adams week, a guy hungry to play these guys again, after being mostly a spectator  in the last meeting, thanks to an ankle injury sustained against the Cowboys. It feels like the tight ends will have to do more blocking than running routes, but we'll see how the tackles are holding up.

The Falcons pass rush is no joke and Vic Beasley has to be salivating to potentially go up against Kyle Murphy. The young right tackle held up well after a rough start last week. Talk about a tough way to start your career. The strength of the Falcons D is its line, with Brooks Reed (two sacks last week) complementing Beasley. The unit is led by a new coordinator, former Packer Marquand Manuel, and the scheme is like Seahawks-lite: a lot of the same principles without the same level of talent.

On the other side of the ball, we'll get a much truer sense of where the Pack's defense is in this game. The opener gave us lots of hope, with the Seahawks running game held in check (except for one or two Wilson scrambles), the pass rush in Wilson's face all day and very solid tackling from the linebackers and secondary. But the Seahawks notoriously start slowly offensively, were missing their best back and have one of the league's worst offensive lines. The Falcons are as explosive as any offense in the league.

It starts up front, where center Alex Mack runs the show and leads a solid unit that features Clay's brother Jake--that matchup is always front and center when these teams meet. The weakness is at right guard, where Wes Schweitzer appeared overmatched in his first start--Akiem Hicks beat him for a pair of sacks.

But the offense saw its leader, Kyle Shanahan, leave for a head job and the keys were handed to Steve Sarkisian, who a year ago was competing in the SEC at Alabama. His offense was lethargic in the opener against the Bears, unable to run the ball and only targeted Jones five times (he caught four, for 66 yards).

They'll make it a point to throw at Jones early and often and we'll get our first glimpse at whether Davon House is up to the challenge. The Pack will have to give him some safety help, but with all of the other weapons that will free someone else up to make plays. Mohammed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are also dangerous; tight end Austin Hooper beat the Bears for an 88 yard touchdown, so he is a weapon as well.

The Pack feels they have made some defensive upgrades that will prevent them from scoring at will as they did in the two matchups last year (75 points two games). Matt Ryan has feasted on the Pack in his career, averaging 351 yards passing in the last three matchups. The key is to make him uncomfortable--knock him down a few times, get him off his spot. If Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark can approach last week's performances, he could be forced into a couple of mistakes.

I do think that a couple of intangibles fall the Pack's way in this one. Teams that are raising banners, getting rings or unveiling new stadiums tend to lose some focus and don't always perform their best; not to mention, the Packers' defense has been hearing for eight months about what happened the last time these teams met. They're itching to show the NFL world that this is a new season.

If Bakhtiari is able to start and finish the game, I think the Pack has a great chance to spring the mild upset, with Montgomery totaling more than 150 yards from scrimmage. But in what will be a loud, raucous environment, one special teams mistake could spell doom and last week didn't give me a ton of confidence in those units.

Falcons 23  Packers 21

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The Baker's Dozen Why 13 and not 10? To celebrate the Pack’s 13 NFL titles, of course. 9/19/17

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