Five things: Packers must control passing game versus Bengals
Five things to watch for in Sunday afternoon's Week 3 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals:
1. Shutting down A.J. Green
Unlike Aaron Rodgers, who distributes the ball quite equally to four different receivers, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has a go-to guy with A.J. Green. Of Dalton's 78 pass attempts through two games this season, Green has been targeted on 28 of them (36 percent of the time). That's also twice as many targets as Cincinnati's No. 2 and 3 receivers, Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham, who have combined to have 26 passes thrown their way.
There was little that the Chicago Bears could do to stop Green in Week 1, as he finished with nine receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns. The Pittsburgh Steelers did a much better job in Week 2 on Green, only allowing him to get six catches for 41 yards and zero touchdowns.
"You don't have to watch much tape to see what he can do with the ball in his hands after the catch," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "His size and vertical speed, he can go up over the top if you're not careful."
Green, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 draft, was an All-Pro last season. So far this season, the Packers haven't been matching up their cornerbacks with specific receivers. For the most part, Sam Shields has played one side and Tramon Williams has been on the other. It's possible that Capers could decide to change his defensive strategy if Green begins to have a big game. However, at 6-foot-4, Green will have a size advantage over any Packers cornerback.
2. Getting pass rush on a less mobile quarterback
It's somewhat excusable that the Packers only have three sacks after two games (which ranks them 24th in the NFL). Playing against quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III didn't allow Green Bay's defense to pass rush in the same style that Capers would prefer to. The Packers were just happy to keep Kaepernick and Griffin in the pocket.
Playing against Dalton, who's only rushed for 89 yards in his three-year career, Green Bay has a chance to really go after him.
"Hopefully this week presents us an opportunity to really pin our ears back and get after the quarterback," Clay Matthews said. "In Week 1, I don't think we expected to get any sacks. Last week (against Washington), we had some success in the first half, and the second half -- because of scheme -- we weren't able to get after him too much. Obviously we strive for sacks around here and disrupting the quarterback. We'll see where we're at after this week.
"Obviously we're getting back to a more traditional offense that we're used to seeing. So it'll be a good test against a good quarterback, a good receiving group and a good O-line. We'll see where we're at after this game."
Getting near Dalton is a difficult task, though. The Bengals have only allowed one sack in the first two games, and ProFootballFocus.com has Cincinnati's pass blocking ranked No. 2 in the NFL.
3. Forcing turnovers
Two games, only one forced turnover. For the Packers, that ranks them last in the NFC, already trailing the Seattle Seahawks by six in that category. Last season, Green Bay ranked 10th in the NFC in forced turnovers and was tied for first during the 2011 season.
Turnovers and success often go hand-in-hand in the NFL, but Capers isn't discouraged yet.
"The thing I always look for is how aggressive our guys are playing," Capers said. "I liked our approach last week going into the game. I thought we went in with a very aggressive mindset and if you do that, my experience tells me that sooner or later that takeaways are going to start to come. If you're able to play aggressively, if you're able to disrupt the quarterback, keep him on his heels, not let him get comfortable, there will be opportunities and sometimes they'll come in bunches.
"I think as long as we play aggressively and have the right mindset, we'll come up with it."
Only a Mike Neal interception has kept the Packers from having zero takeaways in the first two games. Green Bay is also only one of two NFC teams to not force a fumble.
"We're kind of behind the eight ball," Matthews said regarding turnovers. "We always like to be in the positive, in the green as far as that's concerned. It'll definitely be on our mind. It always has been. It's been an emphasis here on defense. Hopefully we can get after the quarterback a little bit more and by doing so create a few opportunities to get some interceptions, as well as strips and turnovers."
4. What can Aaron Rodgers do as an encore?
The chances that Rodgers is statistically as good in Cincinnati as he was against Washington are nearly zero percent. After all, in Week 2, Rodgers completed 34 of 42 passes (81 percent) for 480 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 146.0. There were seven records (both franchise records and NFL records) that Rodgers either broke or tied with that performance.
Even Rodgers kept his expectations in perspective that it's unlikely for him to be that dominant again.
"The bar's been set pretty high around here," Rodgers said. "I just try and remember that I'm just one of 53 to go out there every week and try and do their job as best they can. Obviously mine gets more attention, more scrutiny, maybe a slightly greater responsibility, but it's a job that I take very seriously and I expect to play well on Sundays.
"That's because I put a lot of time in during the week, I prepare, I draw on my experience, on my recall from that week when I get in the game, and I've got coaches who get the most out of me by not allowing me to be complacent. So, I just remember I've got to do my job, everybody else does as well, and when it comes together you can have the kind of success you had on Sunday."
Of course, given that Rodgers "didn't feel great" in Week 2 as he battled a sore neck, perhaps it is possible that he breaks more passing records in this game.
5. Consistency in the rushing game without all weapons available
Eddie Lacy is questionable for this game as he's yet to pass the NFL's concussion protocol. John Kuhn is doubtful with a hamstring injury. Don't forget that DuJuan Harris, who was supposed to team up with Lacy for a one-two punch this season, is out for the entire season with a knee injury.
It's possible that Lacy passes his concussion test this weekend and ends up playing, but that didn't stop coach Mike McCarthy from naming James Starks the starter for this game. But if Lacy is out, that leaves only Starks and fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin. That could force the Packers to add practice-squad running back Michael Hill to the active roster by Sunday.
However, after Starks had 20 carries for 138 yards and one touchdown in Week 2, Green Bay's running game shouldn't take a big step back if Lacy isn't medically cleared.
The big challenge for the Packers, though, is that Cincinnati's run defense is currently ranked fifth in the NFL, according to the rating system at ProFootballFocus.com. Several Green Bay players, including left guard Josh Sitton, identified the Bengals' front seven as the strength of that defense.
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