The Green Bay Packers are no longer winless this preseason. A 27-13 victory in Cincinnati over the Bengals won’t mean much once records are erased in less than two weeks, but coach Mike McCarthy and the Packers finally have a long list of positives to talk about when they review the game film this weekend.
Five things we learned from the Packers’ win:
1. Cedric Benson is a difference maker: Based on what Benson has shown over the past 10 days, and more importantly in his first game action Thursday night for the Packers, it’s hard to imagine he entered training camp as a free agent. Transitioning to Green Bay’s one-back offensive system has been relatively seamless for Benson, finding his way early on with Aaron Rodgers and the starters in Cincinnati. Though Alex Green technically started at running back, he only had five carries for 10 yards while Benson exploded for 38 yards on six rushing attempts (6.3 average). Benson, who has not been much of a threat as a receiver in his first seven years in the NFL, also had a nice catch from Rodgers that he turned into a 10 yard gain.
If Benson can be this productive throughout the regular season, general manager Ted Thompson found the Packers an absolute steal. First, though, Benson has to lock up the starting job at running back in Green Bay, and he may have done just that in this game.
When James Starks returns from his turf toe injury in a couple weeks, he’ll likely be watching from the sideline as Benson takes the field with the first-team offense to begin each game.
For a Packers team that lacked a real running threat last season, Benson’s ability in the backfield — even now at age 29 — should make Green Bay’s offense even better than it was in 2011, a feat that is not easy to accomplish.
2. Rodgers can outrun anybody: OK, not exactly, but the NFL MVP once again led the Packers in rushing in this game by using his incredible footwork and ability to sense pressure in the pocket and get out and run. Rodgers had two rushing touchdowns against the Bengals and finished with 52 yards on the ground on six scrambles.
This is nothing new for Rodgers, who has had at least three rushing touchdowns in each of his first four seasons as a starter. But in Cincinnati, it seemed that no matter which defender got near him in the open field, Rodgers was able to turn on an extra gear and outrun them.
Rodgers has proven that, when he has time to throw, he can find a receiver for a completion. But Rodgers has become an equally dangerous quarterback when he doesn’t have time to throw, a dual threat that almost makes him impossible to stop.
3. Tramon Williams: Shutdown cornerback: With Charles Woodson no longer playing on the outside, it’s up to Williams to become Green Bay’s true No. 1 shutdown cornerback this season. Thursday night, with Williams going up against young, talented Bengals receiver A.J. Green, Williams handily won the matchup.
Williams had a breakout season in 2009 and followed it up with a Pro Bowl year in 2010. Last season, however, was a step back for Williams, who injured his shoulder in Week 1 and was not the same the rest of the year. Unable to play the aggressive style that got him noticed the previous two seasons, Williams looked like a different player in 2011. Due to the injury, he played like a cornerback unable any longer to go one on one with a star NFL receiver and stop him.
Now, Williams is back to his old ways, shutting down opposing receivers. Considering that the Packers have still not found a starter at the cornerback spot opposite him, a strong season from Williams is just what Green Bay’s secondary needs to bounce back from its performance in 2011 that resulted in the team giving up more passing yards than any team in NFL history.
Williams, it appears, is a true shutdown cornerback.
4. Sam Shields:The good, the bad, the ugly: One of those cornerbacks who has had an opportunity to become a starter opposite Williams is Shields. Against the Bengals, Shields showed why the Packers coaching staff is both intrigued by his ability and terrified by his coverage skills. Returning from an elbow injury that kept him out for more than a week, Shields made a very nice play early in the fourth quarter to come up with an interception. Everything about his coverage and ball skills were right on point on this throw, with Shields showing what made him a breakout rookie in 2010. However, Shields also showed in this game why he went undrafted in 2010. On multiple plays, Shields was beat one on one by a Bengals receiver on passes thrown by backup quarterbacks once Andy Dalton had been taken out. Vidal Hazelton and Justin Hilton both got the better of him, so it’s difficult to imagine that Shields’ interception was enough to make up for his inconsistent performance throughout the rest of the game.
5. Graham Harrell struggles again: Like in previous weeks, it’s not all Harrell’s fault. It’s Harrell who looks the worst as he is unable to do much on offense, but his offensive line and wide receivers let him down again in this game. Harrell was chased out of the pocket constantly and given little support by Reggie Wells and Greg Van Roten as Cincinnati’s defense were in his face just over one second on a few snaps. Diondre Borel dropped a pass too, something that has not been much of a problem for the young receiver.
But Harrell can not be completely absolved of blame. Once again, the Packers offense with Harrell at quarterback failed to produce a touchdown. In his first five drives in this game, all in the third quarter, the Harrell-run offense managed only 29 yards and two first downs.
It would be interesting to see how Harrell would perform with the starting offensive line and wide receivers, which is of course the group he’d play with if he ever had to step in for Rodgers in the regular season, but this game didn’t help Harrell’s case in securing the No. 2 quarterback job.