The FOX NFL Game of the Week features the Green Bay Packers traveling to the banks of the Ohio to face the Cincinnati Bengals. With both clubs harboring playoff aspirations, let’s get the lowdown on each team’s subplots heading into this river city rendezvous.
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Five things to watch: Green Bay Packers
James Starks: Aberration or Emerging Contributor?
It’s erroneous to declare Starks a fledgling star, as the Packers back will be turning 28 in February and already experienced his “breakout” performance in the 2010 Super Bowl run (four games, 315 yards, touchdown). Unfortunately, injuries sidetracked Starks’ potential the past two seasons, evidenced in a scant 833 yards and two scores during this time span. The team concurred with this diminished outlook, snagging Alabama running back Eddie Lacy in the second round of April’s Draft. Considering his roster spot was uncertain entering the final days of camp, Starks’ career day in Week 2 ranks as one of the biggest early-season surprises.
Though his long-term forecast remains vague, Starks will see plenty of opportunities this week in the Queen City, as Lacy will be sidelined with a concussion. Alas, Starks could be in for tough sledding on Sunday, as the Bengals are suffocating the opposition to 2.8 yards per carry, sixth-lowest in the league. If the fourth-year man out of Buffalo plans on making an impact, it will most likely come in the receiving arena.
Matchup Watch: Jermichael Finley vs. Cincinnati LBs
I hate to put one in a negative light, but middle linebacker Rey Maualuga’s coverage prowess is evocative of the display your out-of-shape buddy puts forth in a Thanksgiving pick-up game. James Harrison has some gas left in his tank, yet lacks the speed to be a force in pass protection, while Vontaze Burfict’s occasional mental lapses on the gridiron correlate to spacious mid-field windows.
Enter Finley, who is enjoying a mid-career rejuvenation in 2013 with 11 receptions for 121 and two trips to pay dirt. Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones might have more name recognition, but Finley’s role as Aaron Rodgers’ security blanket is a fundamental piece to the Packers’ aerial attack. Matched up against a credulous Cincinnati linebacker corps, look for Finley to be targeted early and often.
Speaking of Rodgers…
It’s time we talk about the new Discount Double Check commercial
I’ve been one of Rodgers’ biggest proponents since he took the starting reins in 2008, and even in this pass-happy landscape, believe his aptitude is unparalleled at the position. That said…man, is he something awful in commercials. I’m not saying his Pizza Hut plugs last fall were infused with a Freddie Prinze Jr.-esque nonchalance, I’m just not not saying that. And the State Farm Discount Double Check ads? Ehh. Ok with the initial presentation, thought the B.J. Raji iteration was a nice surprise, but this new promotion featuring the Superfans? Pretty sure you can see Rodgers’ eyes following the cue cards.
It’s nowhere near the discomfort level of Michael Jordan’s Hanes pushes. Still, Rodgers needs to spend the offseason in the Manning School of Sponsorship.
Containing A.J. Green
Cincinnati has made a concerted effort to surround Andy Dalton with viable complementary weapons: Jermaine Gresham, Mohamed Sanu, Tyler Eifert, a backfield of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. However, the catalyst for the Bengals offense is Green, as his versatility and well-roundedness present a nightmare bout for secondaries. Although his talent at wideout is second to only Calvin Johnson, Green’s destruction can be suppressed. Pittsburgh employed this strategy last Monday night, yielding short-to-mid passes in Green’s direction while taking away the deep threat. Such an approach puts the onus on Dalton to connect with his other receivers, a sentiment that proved effective. Green caught just six of 14 balls in his direction, with Dalton hitting just 25-of-45 attempts. The Bengals came out on top 20-10, yet this outcome was not indicative of the execution by the Steelers’ defense.
Green Bay’s secondary has been porous through the first two weeks, giving up 718 yards through the air, third-worst in the NFL. It would behoove the Pack to implement this bend-but-don’t-break strategy against Green and the Bengals this weekend.
The Packers will win if…
Mike Zimmer’s defense is one of the best in the AFC, and the Bengals have enough offensive weapons to make things interesting. But even if Starks no-shows, Cincinnati’s defensive line overpowers Green Bay’s protection, this happens again…Green Bay’s high-octane offense is running on all cylinders, and when that engine is roaring, few will be able to silence it.