Welcome to the Hall of Fame version of the Bengals.com media roundtable, a prestigious gathering that makes one of the NFL's most historic teams an up-to-date favorite when the Packers meet the underdog Bengals on Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
Troy Aikman, the Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback, returns to PBS for the first time in seven years as a FOX Network analyst and while he won't make a call he says the key matchup of the game is the Bengals defensive line's effort to pressure quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Bob McGinn of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who has covered the Packers long enough and well enough that he was honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the McCann Award two years ago, isn't into predictions, either. Must be something about Canton. But he does believe both teams have a shot to get to New Jersey and the Super Bowl.
Among the varied duties of Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer is the Pro Football Hall of Fame vote he wields, and for Sunday he's backing a future Hall of Famer in Rodgers in his matchup against a battered Bengals secondary.
The youthful Tyler Dunne, who also covers the Packers for the Journal Sentinel, is learning the ropes working with the gifted duo of McGinn and Tom Silverstein and hopes to have a McCann Award in his future. He's also giving the Packers the nod because of Rodgers's hot hand.
Let's go around the table:
Last week was one of the most impressive games I've ever seen in Green Bay with Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers controlled the game at the line and the Redskins had some pressure. He just gets the ball out so fast and he's a step ahead. He gets rid of it with his release. He's very accurate, his arm strength seems to improve every year, and he's highly intelligent.
The factor that he has that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning don't have is he's got wheels. He can get out of the pocket and beat the rush with his feet. You have to mix coverages, wait until the end of the play clock and see who checks last. The Bengals have to get after the offensive line and make them one-dimensional.
Rookie running back Eddie Lacy got a concussion early last week and James Starks played great getting their first 100-yard game in 51 games counting playoffs. He's 6-2, 224 and runs hard. He led them to the Super Bowl in 2010 and has been a forgotten man, but he's healthy and riding high.
All four of their receivers are at the top of their game. Tight end Jermichael Finley has never played better than he has in this preseason and the first two games. He's been taking short passes and cutting it upfield and getting tremendous yards after catch by keeping defenders away from his long legs with his forearms. You certainly can't cover him with a linebacker down the middle.
And the three wide receivers, I really couldn't tell you which one is better. They never come off the field and they can line up anywhere, Finley included.
David Bakhitiari, the rookie left tackle they took in the fourth round has played really well. He's athletic, he doesn't back down, he's tenacious. He's not a big guy (6-4, 300), but he's played pretty good football. After losing Brian Bulaga with a torn ACL on Aug. 3, they came out smelling like a rose.
I would imagine that's a big matchup with right end Michael Johnson. Their right tackle, Don Barclay is like Bakhitiari, undersized (6-4, 305). He's a free agent from West Virginia in his second year who is a guy they're high on. He's a tough guy with really big hands.
Green Bay's problem is in the secondary. San Francisco's Anquan Boldin killed them with 13 catches for 208 yards. With Morgan Burnett not playing at safety, it's a mix of three guys for two spots and they're barely adequate and that's been a problem for them.
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews is their one pass rusher and last week he did move and play nine snaps on the left side. The hope that Nick Perry becomes a good complement to him on the other side hasn't materialized yet. They're huge up front and have been much better against the run than in the past with end Johnny Jolly back from suspension. With Jolly they were No. 1 against the run in '09.
They had a high blitz percentage against RGIII last week. They're not a great pass-rush team unless they manufacture it. The safeties are where they have been really struggling and they have to do something against the Bengals tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.
THE EDGE: I don't even do that in my paper. But I think it's possible these two teams could be meeting in the Super Bowl.
The matchup I'm really looking forward to watching is Green Bay's offense vs. Cincinnati's defense. We had the Packers the first two weeks of the season and they've played well. The loss in Week 1 was a tough loss, a lot like the Bengals and last weekend. Rodgers was phenomenal and they had the running game going. They come in with a lot of confidence. But I like this Bengals defense. They're an aggressive group. I think those two units will be fun to watch.
I think defenses, for the most part, are prepared to play the up-tempo style. They see so much of that stuff each weekend and have for a couple of years. The problem that Green Bay presents is they have so many weapons. If you're playing the Bengals, even though they have a lot of weapons, too, you pretty much know, 'Hey A.J. Green is the guy we better have an answer for,' and not many do. But with the Packers every week it's somebody else who emerges and has a big game, and that's what creates the problems for you.
The Bengals front is going to have to be disruptive. They're going to have to get after the quarterback and they're certainly capable of doing that. They've got the guys up front that can dominate the line of scrimmage when they get it going. For the Bengals that has to be a key. I don't care who you've got covering, you're not going to be able to stick with those guys if Aaron Rodgers has time.
Green Bay defensively played the run well Week 1. I thought last week they played better than the numbers probably suggest. They had the big lead. The Bengals create some problems, too. I like these guys. Of course A.J. Green is terrific, but Gresham, Eifert, even Sanu, the rookie running back, I like this group. They create some problems, too. It should be an exciting game.
The league right now is about protecting the quarterback. Not all of the teams have the weapons these two teams have, but most of these teams have quarterbacks and skill players that if you don't disrupt the timing of the quarterback, nobody is stopping anybody. That's how I kind of see this one. If the offensive lines are protecting these guys, both quarterbacks will have big games.
THE EDGE: I don't get into an edge when I'm calling the game. They're not reinventing the game. A lot of times in this league you play 57 minutes and someone makes a play. As far as the Bengals needing to keep the ball to keep the Packers off the field, I don't understand teams that come into the game wanting to run a lot of plays. To me you've got to see how the game is going. If your defense is on the field a lot, you want to give those guys a break. If you've got a lead, you want to slow it down a little bit. To me, offensively you want to dictate the tempo of the game. If you're running a lot of plays, a lot of times that can come at the expense of your defense. But while slowing it down is fine, you still have to score points.
The injuries in the secondary and a short week to prepare for Green Bay, especially the way the Packers offense has looked the first two weeks, gives the edge to the Packers.
Green Bay's defense is vulnerable and the Bengals two tight ends can exploit what one of the Packers beat writers called the soft underbelly of their defense. But Rodgers and those receivers against the Bengals DBs are such an edge. You look at Randall Cobb, you look at James Jones. Really, for the Bengals to win this game they've almost got to do what they did in the second half against Pittsburgh and hold the ball for 20 minutes. I don't know if they can repeat that again.
I do think the Bengals pass rush, especially against a rookie left tackle, will be able to get to Rodgers a couple of times. I also think this is a much better defense than the Packers faced last week against Washington.
THE EDGE: Packers, 27-21. This is a good test for the Bengals. Let's face it. When we looked at the schedule, this was the first game you circled for concern because of Green Bay's high-powered offense and the fact you had a short week. Now you add some injuries to it, and it's compounded even more.
The Green Bay offense is really clicking with the no-huddle. It goes through the receivers. They don't really leave the field. They seem to be in shape, they run a lot plays. They're not too worried about the offense, they're not worried about the young tackles. Running back James Starks looked good against Washington and that gives them something against the front seven you have there.
The big question is safety. They miss Morgan Burnett for the third straight game. He's the one that made it go back there last year. San Francisco's Anquan Boldin ate those guys alive in the opener. They didn't have an answer for them. I think you might see more Chris Banjo. He's an undrafted guy and he was out of football last year working at a desk job. He might play a little more safety with M.D. Jennings, an undrafted guy out of Arkansas State, and Jerron McMillian, a fourth-rounder out of Maine. A lot of youth. They think they're getting better, but if you're Cincinnati you have to imagine they'll exploit it as much as they can.
The left tackle, Bakhitiari, has played really well. The right tackle, Barclay, had a rough start last week. Rodgers had a lot of time. I know they gave up four sacks last week but I think three were on the first drive or two. After that he had all day. That's a big matchup because everyone knows about Cincinnati's pass rush.
The Packers defense spent five, six months preparing for Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III in the first two games, beating that zone read option in their heads. With a mobile quarterback you just can't fly up the field and abandon your lanes. It's kind of a horizontal mindset, so I know they're really excited to actually pin the ears back and just rush the passer against a guy like Andy Dalton who likes to stay in the pocket. They haven't got a lot of pressure these first two games sack-wise. But they blitzed RGIII a ton on third down last week and got in his face and forced a lot of errant throws that set the tone for the defense.
Matthews can get after the quarterback. I think they're still unsure about Nick Perry, their first round pick from last year who plays on the other side at left outside linebacker, and Mike Neal, a converted D-end. Between the two of them they could probably use a little more pressure.
It comes down to the Packers defense being able to bend but not break and force a couple of turnovers. I think Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is probably going to do what he wants to do. No. 1 receivers have given Green Bay trouble statistically, but a lot of times Green Bay has won those games. If they can somehow contain the rest of the passing game and force a couple of turnovers, they should be OK.
THE EDGE: Packers, 24-20. It should be a good game. I think the Packers offense will be able to move the ball and put up points. Not having Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward, arguably two of their best players on defense, period, won't be easy. Hayward led the team in interceptions and breakups last year. So they're in survival mode. It's a good defense in Cincinnati. I don't know if Green Bay is going to be able to run the ball on those guys after seeing what they did to Forte and the Steelers don't really have a running back but they couldn't do anything on the ground, either.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bengals are hoping this is the core of players that can take them where the Packers already are as a consistent double-digit winning team that always seems to make the playoffs.
There are some similarities as they come into this one. The Bengals are developing an arsenal of weapons that, like the Packers, is fast, versatile and causes matchup problems without having to substitute. But the Packers have the more seasoned triggerman in Rodgers.
Like the Bengals the Packers have proven to be stingy against the run early this season, Green Bay has a marquee pass rusher in outside linebacker Clay Matthews, and they're no stranger to rankings in the top 10. But while the Packers have to manufacture pressure, the Bengals have one of the best defensive lines in the game.
And like the Bengals the Packers are hit with injury in the secondary. The two top Bengals corners, Leon Hall and Terence Newman, are OK, but after that it's an unknown. The Packers are playing with a thin group of young safeties and one of their best defensive players, slot corner Casey Hayward, is out. Both receiving corps should be able to make some hay.
One of the key questions of the day, then, is which quarterback is going to have time to exploit it. With the Packers dialing up the blitz a guy to watch is rookie running back Giovani Bernard. While everyone was buzzing about his two touchdowns Monday night, the Bengals feel he's been just as valuable in pass protection and say he's yet to miss a blitz pickup.
The Bengals, no doubt, would like to spread out the Packers to keep Clay Matthews (not to mention Rodgers) at bay with runs and short passes. They'd love to get the Packers in some kind of a nickel situation so they can loosen up Green Bay's monstrous three-man front that seemingly ranges from 350 to 380 pounds, as well as get space to work on the safeties. The Bengals offensive line is coming off an impressive second half it pushed around the Steelers and they'll have to muscle it up again.
Meanwhile it is the Bengals defense's biggest challenge since it faced down the Giants and quarterback Eli Manning back in November at PBS. Rodgers is so dangerous in and out of the pocket with his lightning release that the defensive ends have to make sure they get him. And the Bengals have suffered a loss there as well with the season-ending injury to Robert Geathers. His replacements for a few snaps could range from rookie Margus Hunt in his first NFL game to veteran SAM backer James Harrison.
Both teams are also hurting on special teams, where the Packers won't have their best player Jarrett Bush after he missed his first game in six years last week. The Bengals probably won't have their top special teams player in safety Jeremy Miles. The Packers have backed off using the electric Randall Cobb because of his production on offense, but he may make a cameo and the Bengals have to make a stand with a patchwork quilt.
The best strategy, it would seem, is to do what the Bengals did against the Steelers last Monday night and keep the ball for 35 minutes. But they'll have to do more than that against a quarterback that oozes points. They have to score. They can still lose if they win time of possession.
In their 34 games under quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bengals average 22.8 points per game and can never quite seem to get to 24. There have been a lot of games of two TDs and three field goals.
In that same stretch Rodgers has had 10 road games where he has thrown three touchdown passes. Since 2010 Rodgers has led the Packers to 22 games of 30 points. In that same stretch the Bengals have done it 11 times.
They'll need more than 22.8 Sunday even if their defense is brilliant.