After a disappointing road loss to the Chicago Bears followed up by an impressive win on Monday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals now find themselves in the thick of things with a 1-1 record.
This week, however, the Bengals must take on the daunting task of facing the Green Bay Packers.
After a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in their opener, the Packers came back strong and dismantled the Washington Redskins quickly in Week 2. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was on fire and finished the game completing 34 of his 42 passing attempts for 480 yards and four touchdowns for a passer rating of 146.0.
It may not be possible for the Bengals to stop Rodgers, but slowing him down must be the key for the defense.
Defense: Contain Aaron Rodgers
This is easier said than done—Rodgers has already thrown for over 800 yards in 2013. After some late-game struggles against Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, the Bengals secondary will have their hands full.
The best way to slow down Rodgers is to avoid mismatches against his plethora of offensive weapons. The Packers have so much talent on the offensive side of the ball, it becomes a nightmarish scenario for defenses to adjust accordingly.
The Redskins learned this the hard way in the first quarter of their Week 2 matchup against Rodgers and Co.
Green Bay is very good at shifting personnel around before the snap to create mismatches for its offense. During this play, the Packers get the matchup they want as wide receiver Randall Cobb gets man-to-man coverage with linebacker Perry Riley:
Cobb hits the seam and then cuts across the face of Riley, showing his numbers to Rodgers. Meanwhile, the rest of the Redskins defense have been pulled to the sidelines by the Packers spread offense. This creates a huge soft spot in coverage that Cobb can exploit for yards after the catch:
Because of this gaping hole, it does not take long for Cobb to get behind the Redskins secondary. From here it is a footrace to the end zone:
Cobb easily wins the race and puts six points on the board for the Packers after this 35-yard touchdown catch-and-run:
Now, watch the play in its entirety:
Due to the lack of efficiency in coverage from the Bengals linebackers, the base defensive package for Cincinnati must be nickel with some substitutions for a dime defense as well. The Packers do not have much of a running game to speak of, so extra speed will be necessary at all times for the Bengals.
Because the Packers have much more offensive firepower than the Bengals, it will be virtually impossible for Cincinnati to win in a shootout. Avoiding big plays like the one above will be crucial for the Bengals in this Week 3 matchup.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Packers have been known to give up points, but their secondary has a notorious reputation for being ball hawks. There is one weapon that shined for the Bengals in Week 2 that should be utilized much more to exploit the Packers defense.
Offense: Get the Ball into Giovani Bernard's Hands
This seems like a rather simplistic game plan for the Bengals on the offensive side of the ball, but it is completely necessary. Against the Steelers, Cincinnati's offense was much more versatile and dangerous with Bernard on the field.
The rookie running back has already shown that he has what it takes as a rusher—Bernard is averaging 5.0 yards per carry on 12 attempts this season. However, what he brings to the table as a receiver is how the Bengals can exploit the Packers defense.
Despite only catching two passes this season, Bernard showed the kind of home run threat he can be with the ball in his hands in space. His one reception against the Steelers in Week 2 showed what kind of offense Cincinnati can bring to the table while he is in the game.
This play sets up perfectly for Bernard from the beginning. Tyler Eifert goes in motion to the strong side of the field, which takes Troy Polamalu away from the action. Cincinnati's wide receivers are singled up on the outside to draw the secondary deep:
Due to Pittsburgh's defensive assignments, Bernard has the opportunity to remain uncovered when he leaves the backfield:
Bernard runs a short curl as a check-down option for Andy Dalton. Due to good coverage downfield, Dalton decides to get the ball into his running back's hands. Because the Bengals wide receivers have drawn the Steelers secondary deep, there is plenty of room for Bernard to maneuver:
Showing a great initial burst, Bernard uses his speed to his advantage and takes off toward the weak side of the field. Three Steelers are in pursuit and look to get a good angle on Bernard near the sideline:
Bernard easily outruns the slower defenders and gets his angle to take the short reception 27 yards for a touchdown:
Now, watch the play in its entirety:
The way the Bengals offense can keep the Packers defense from gaining the upper hand is to keep them off-balance. The versatility of Bernard—whether as a rusher or receiver—will allow the Bengals offense to do just that.
This week should mark the coming-out party for the rookie running back. Although through two weeks, he has a total of 12 rushes and two receptions, expect his season totals to double this week against the Packers.
Keeping these two keys to the game in mind, the Bengals have one last deficiency to improve upon before their showdown with the Packers.
Coaching: Faster Adjustments are Necessary
The coaching staff did some good things against the Steelers on Monday night, but there was also a good amount of ugly football played due to their slow reaction to change a pass-heavy game plan that was not working.
By halftime, the coaching staff righted the ship; however, everything that transpired before that almost doomed the Bengals this past week.
Before halftime, the Bengals running backs were hot. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was averaging 5.4 yards per carry and Bernard was averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Despite the success by these backs, the Bengals only carried the ball eight times. They relied on an oft-errant Dalton to air it out to the tune of 31 first-half passing attempts.
Aside from a game plan that was not working, Cincinnati conducted an extremely poor two-minute drill at the end of the first half.
With almost the full two minutes at their disposal, they began their drive by running the football and wasting roughly 30 seconds before finally calling another play. There was no urgency whatsoever and the team paid the price—they could not take the lead before halftime.
The coaches were able to revamp the game plan for the second half, which allowed the Bengals to win the game; however, if they cannot make these adjustments quicker and on the fly, a fast-paced Packers team will be very difficult to overcome.
The way things look right now, this could be one of the most exciting contests on Sunday.
All screen shots courtesy of NFL Game Rewind.