Oh, it was plenty bad, alright. But the Packers’ loss to the Bengals in week two was not as disastrous as it may have appeared.
Shocked. Angry. Disgusted. Outraged. That’s how most Packer fans felt after watching their team lose at home to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, and I was no exception. But after a couple days to think about it and watch the game on tape, I’ve calmed down quite a bit. What really surprised me, watching the game a second time, was that the Packers did not get outplayed as badly as I had thought. Yes, they played poorly, and they clearly deserved to lose, but the seven-point margin was a pretty accurate reflection of what kind of game it was.
For starters, it must be admitted that those guys in the orange jerseys made some really good plays. The Bengals may be better than we thought they were. And that’s an important point, because our expectations color our impressions. Losing at home to a terrible Bengals team is unforgivable. But losing at home to a Bengals team that is pretty good is, well, not quite so bad. Especially when you consider that the Packers spent much of the off-season focusing on that huge home opener against the hated Chicago Bears, and won that game in dramatic fashion. It was a recipe for a letdown, just like last season, when they won a Sunday night home opener against the Vikings in nail-biting fashion, then found themselves trailing the Lions in the fourth quarter the following week.
Now, of course we don’t know how good the Bengals really are. They did not set the world on fire in their opening day loss to the Broncos. But the Bengals MIGHT be good. We have 14 more games to figure that out. And we have 14 more games to figure out how good the Packers are. The NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint.
Some fans will say, “Take away Woodson’s interceptions, and the game would’ve been a blowout.” But I’m not just giving those things away. No deal. I am, however, willing to trade them for the two biggest plays that the Bengals made all day. Like the third and 34 conversion. Or the flea flicker. Or maybe the 60-plus yard punt return. Charles Woodson plays for the Packers, so his interceptions belong to us. He is not some kind of deux ex machina phenomenon who descends from the heavens and turns the game in our favor, as much as he may seem like that at times.
As for the third and 34 conversion, it was poorly played by the Packer defense, but it was also a fluke. Cullen Jenkins had the guy dead to rights 5-10 yards shy of the first down, but instead of going for the tackle he went for the strip--which was exactly the right thing to do. And it worked—except the ball somehow bounded forward ten yards like a jackrabbit and was recovered by the Bengals for a first down. That’s not what usually happens when the ball is stripped.
But the big plays were not the real story in this game. The real story is that the Packers were beaten at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. That can’t be denied. It should not have happened. And it raises some concerns. But on offense, the line did not really fall apart until Chad Clifton got injured. Then we were stuck with Darryn Colledge at left tackle, a position he had not played in several weeks, and coming off a week in which he missed practice due to a foot injury. There should’ve been a better backup plan for the most important position on the O-line, but on the other hand, Clifton’s injury was a worst-case scenario.
Losing Nick Collins was another worst-case scenario of sorts, considering that Atari Bigby was already out of the lineup and safety is our weakest defensive position in terms of depth. And the Bengals exploited it. Al Harris and Charles Woodson were excellent as usual in coverage. I don’t know if the Bengals completed a single pass along the sidelines during the game. But they were able to exploit the deep middle, where the safeties roam, or in the case of Aaron Rouse and Jarrett Bush, where the safeties wander about aimlessly. This tactic allowed the Bengals to make just enough big plays to get points on the board and keep the Packer defense soft enough to run against. But Collins and Bigby will heal, and with experience and adjustments in game planning, the backups should be less easy to exploit.
There are a couple of complaints I’ve heard from fans that did not hold up to a second viewing of the game. One of them is that Aaron Rodgers held onto the ball too long. I counted how many sacks happened for that reason, and the number I came up with was one (out of six). There was another sack that occurred when Rodgers was outside of the pocket, but the defender had grabbed his right arm, preventing him from throwing the ball away. Rodgers was out of sync, for obvious reasons, and missed some throws he should’ve made, but he was not a big reason why the Packers lost the game.
The other complaint I’ve heard is that Mike McCarthy got away from the short passing game that is the bread and butter of the West Coast offense. But there were actually quite a few short passes. To the extent that they may have been lacking, it was only because the Packers went with max protection on many of the pass plays, and even when the RB’s and TE’s chipped and released, the rush was in Rodgers’ face so quickly that it was difficult to complete even the short passes. And you do need to throw downfield at times to stretch the defense. The offense’s lack of production had much more to do with poor execution than with poor play-calling.
I realize that none of this is going to make fans feel warm and fuzzy inside after such a disappointing loss. But there is a long way to go. The Packers have playmakers on both sides of the ball. The 2009 season is just beginning to unfold. And the Packers play the Rams on Sunday. It’s the perfect opportunity to bounce back.