Packers looking a bit more like themselves

With roster cuts just a few days away and the Sept. 9 regular-season opener with the San Francisco 49ers closing in, the Green Bay Packers finally had a strong performance this preseason. In beating the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-13, on Thursday night, Green Bay avoided an 0-3 record and, more important, made significant improvements in several areas.

Handing out grades following the Packers’ win:

Passing offense: B-

Aaron Rodgers didn’t look like the 2011 version of himself, the NFL MVP who threw 45 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Rodgers was good in this game and better than the average starting quarterback in the league, but he didn’t display the level of utter dominance he had throughout last season. However, this is just preseason, and it’s likely that play-calling head coach Mike McCarthy was revealing only small portions of the team’s overall offensive playbook. With Jermichael Finley not available due to the birth of his child and second-year tight end D.J. Williams out with an ankle injury, Tom Crabtree played with the starters, and he’s nowhere near the pass-catching threat the other two are. Greg Jennings returned from his concussion and had two catches and made one very nice move with the ball that showed the star receiver isn’t too far off after missing two weeks of practice and two preseason games.

Graham Harrell and the second-string passing offense continued to struggle. The offensive line working with Harrell was abysmal yet again, and even the talented group of young reserve wide receivers (Diondre Borel, Tori Gurley and Jarrett Boykin) were nonfactors. After going another game without scoring a touchdown with Harrell at quarterback, the blame ultimately will fall mostly on him. Some of it is deserved due to Harrell’s lack of production, but there are a lot of reasons the second-team offense can’t get anything going this preseason.


Rushing offense: B+

What a difference it can make to an offense when there’s a proven, talented running back on the field. Cedric Benson’s debut with the Packers could not have gone any better. Playing in Cincinnati, where he’d spent the past four seasons, Benson had six carries for 38 yards and looked strong and confident running the ball. Alex Green started the game and finished with 10 yards in five attempts, but Benson took over soon after and may have solidified himself as Green Bay’s Week 1 starter in the regular season. Considering Benson was an unsigned free agent two weeks ago, his addition to the Packers’ offense could make the unit even stronger than it was a year ago — as difficult as that seems to believe.

Rodgers again led Green Bay in rushing, scrambling six times for 52 yards and running the ball into the end zone twice for touchdowns. Rodgers’ elusiveness and open-field ability adds another dynamic threat to an offense that is already scary for opposing defenses.

With James Starks (turf toe) and Brandon Saine (hamstring) out, undrafted rookie running back Marc Tyler again got a lot of action with the second-team offense. Tyler had 46 yards on 12 attempts and will likely find himself on the Packers’ practice squad this season.

Fullback John Kuhn had three carries for 19 yards (6.3 average) but fumbled an exchange on a handoff from Harrell that was recovered by the Bengals and led to a quick touchdown for Cincinnati.

Rushing defense: B

The Bengals didn’t try to run the ball very often and were led by quarterback Andy Dalton’s 36 yards. But when Cincinnati did hand off to a running back, the results were very encouraging for the Packers’ defense, as the Bengals averaged less than 2.5 yards per carry. Linebacker Dezman Moses continued his terrific play since joining Green Bay as an undrafted free agent by picking up a tackle-for-loss in a one-on-one situation. Erik Walden and M.D. Jennings also had tackles behind the line of scrimmage. If the Packers’ defense can be consistently strong against the run, it will be a big upgrade from last season.

Passing defense: A-

Cornerback Tramon Williams continued his strong preseason and training camp with a very good game. Matched up with Bengals star receiver A.J. Green, Williams dominated and shut down Green with several pass breakups. Backup cornerback Sam Shields had an interception but also had several mistakes. Considering his recent struggles, it seems Shields is now over-thinking on the field instead of letting his natural athleticism carry him as it did in 2010 when he had a breakout rookie season. Jarrett Bush, starting at right outside cornerback, didn’t have a great game but didn’t do anything to necessarily lose the job. Casey Hayward, the only other cornerback on the roster who could compete for the spot against Bush at this point, didn’t do much to stand out. The shoulder injury to Davon House in the preseason opener two weeks ago has already proven to be very costly. If it ends up requiring surgery, Green Bay will need one of its other cornerbacks (Bush, Hayward, Shields) to really step up and take control of that starting job.

All that said, holding Dalton to 5 of 17 passing for 40 yards is a big accomplishment for a Packers defense that gave up more passing yards than any team in NFL history last season. Add in two sacks against Dalton and constant pressure from Clay Matthews and Green Bay had a very good night in this area.

Special teams: B+

Mason Crosby made both of his field-goal attempts, including a 46-yarder, and punter Tim Masthay is proving to be a very valuable factor in the Packers’ field-possession battles. Randall Cobb returned one kickoff for 20 yards and ran one punt return for 12 yards. There was nothing spectacular from the special teams in this game, but they were solid, and often times — as long as there aren’t crucial mistakes – that’s enough to get the job done.

Overall: B+

Green Bay got its first preseason win, but that’s not what matters. The way in which the Packers got that win, however, is crucial. After two lackluster preseason games leading up to this, Green Bay desperately needed strong performances from multiple areas on both sides of the ball, and McCarthy got just that. The emergence of Benson makes the offense even better and the starting defense performed very well against a formidable Bengals offense. The game film will produce a lot of positive grades in McCarthy’s assessments and that’s what the coaching staff wants to see at this point of the preseason.

Follow Paul Imig on Twitter