GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers are 2 1/2-point favorites for Sunday’s game at the Cincinnati Bengals. While the Packers have won three in a row and are trending the right way, there are three reasons for concern.
1. Playing Chase
The obvious reason to worry is Cincinnati’s passing attack against Green Bay’s depleted pass defense. Remember, it’s not just All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander who will be out of the lineup. Pro Bowl pass rusher Za’Darius Smith is on injured reserve, as well. So, the Packers might not have the coverage to help the pass rush get home. And they might not have the pass rush to take the heat off the secondary.
According to SportRadar, Green Bay is 24th with 33 quarterback pressures while Cincinnati is tied for second with 25 pressures allowed. Based on those numbers, it will be up to defensive coordinator Joe Barry to create pressure via scheme.
Second-year Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has an excellent trio of receivers with veteran Tyler Boyd, second-year player Tee Higgins and first-round rookie Ja’Marr Chase. In terms of big-play production, Chase is off to a superb start. In Week 1, he caught a 50-yard touchdown pass vs. Minnesota. In Week 2, he caught a 42-yard touchdown pass at Chicago. In Week 3, he caught a 34-yard touchdown pass at Pittsburgh. In the process, Chase became the first player since 1976 to have touchdown catches of 40-plus yards in each of his first two games and the first player since 2002 to catch a touchdown pass of 25-plus yards in each of his first three games.
“He’s a freak of nature,” coach Matt LaFleur said in the accompanying video.
Green Bay is fourth with only 16 completions allowed of 15-plus yards. Can it be so stingy without the phenomenal Alexander?
“Teams want to throw the ball over your head,” defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. “They’re not satisfied with 5, 6, 10 yards. I’ve been coaching for 24 years and played for nine. They design plays to throw shots, so if you make them be patient, you’re going to have a chance to make a play. I was raised up that way with Fritz Shurmer and he was the same way. He said no team wants to go 14-, 15-play drives, even though you’ve got the ability to do it. They want to take shots, so they can give you a shot to go intercept the ball.”
2. Defense Changes Stripes
Last season, the Bengals ranked 22nd in points allowed (26.5 per game), 26th in total defense (389.2 yards per game) and a hideous 31st against the run (5.11 yards per carry). This season, they’re eighth in points allowed (18.8 per game), seventh in total defense (323.0 per game) and eighth against the run (3.70).
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What’s changed? The personnel. The Bengals bought four starters in free agency – defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton. Their team leader in sacks, B.J. Hill, was acquired in a trade. That’s five veteran additions that are playing major dividends.
Only in his second season, Burrow’s star power apparently has made Cincinnati an attractive destination.
“I think Joe is a lure for a lot of these guys. Just the way he plays, the way he carries himself and they see the future we're building with him is at the heart of it,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said this week. “Even talking to free agents, that’s a big selling point. I think maybe the Monday night win over Pittsburgh (last December) did a lot for us at the end of the year as well. Just talking about the culture when things weren't going well and still not giving up. I'm sure a lot of guys saw that, too.”
3. Another New Line
The Packers have survived without All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari. They’ve survived without his replacement, Pro Bowl left guard Elgton Jenkins.
Can they survive without rookie center Josh Myers?
Because it was so important to get Myers ready, he took the overwhelming majority of the first-team snaps during training camp. Whether it’s Jenkins or Lucas Patrick, the Packers will have a good player taking Myers’ place in his lineup. However, Jenkins spent all summer at left tackle and hasn’t played in two weeks. Patrick spent most of the summer playing guard and hasn’t played in three weeks.
Moreover, coaches like to say the best offensive lines are the offensive lines that play together for week after week after week. This will be Green Bay’s fourth starting line in five games. That’s not ideal for a road game against a strong defensive front.
By the way, if Yosh Nijman makes his third consecutive start at left tackle, he’ll draw Trey Hendrickson. After recording 13.5 sacks last year for the Saints, he signed a four-year, $60 million contract in free agency. He’s got 2.5 sacks and ranks among the NFL leaders with 20 pressures.
“I think it all starts with Hendrickson and Hubbard off the edge, and there’s D.J. Reader inside,” LaFleur said. “They’ve got a lot of guys that they cause some problems for you up front. They’re tough to block. They’re big, they’re physical. The thing that stands out more than anything is just the relentless effort they play with. We’re going to have to be on our ‘A game’ on offense.”