Five things to watch when the Bengals play the Packers on Thursday in the third preseason game at 7 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12).
The Bengals offensive line vs. the Packers 3-4 look.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is an old AFC North hand and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's first coordinator in the league with that '92 Steelers club. The Bengals see different aspects of the 3-4 in the Sept. 10 opener in Baltimore, but it's a 3-4 just the same and the first O-line has to run the ball better than it did last week in the first half (11 yards on 10 carries) in Atlanta.
It's a big night for rookie right guard and Packers boyhood fan Kevin Zeitler as he pounds it at times against Pro Bowl nose tackle B.J. Raji and left end Ryan Pickett, an Ohio State product that led the Packers defensive line in tackles last season.
Pickett and Raji helped the Pack lead the NFL in rushing defense in 2009. Green Bay finished 14th last season against the rush, but last overall despite holding quarterbacks to a passer rating of 70.4 in the past two years, fourth best in the NFL. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who has yet to throw an interception this season, faces a defense that led the NFL in interceptions in 2009 and 2011.
The Bnegals also have to keep an eye on right outside linebacker Clay Matthews and his 29.5 sacks since he came into the league in 2009. If you guessed he's the first Packer since running back John Brockington 40 years ago to go to the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons, you're good.
The first line has allowed Dalton to get sacked only once in his six drives and that appeared to be more of a coverage sack.
The Packers explosive offense in the red zone.
Green Bay, with NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers pulling the strings at quarterback, is going to get yards. They won't get as many Thursday with all-world tight end Jermichael Finley back home after his wife gave birth, but the Packers have a corps of receivers that last season led all wide-receiver groups in the NFL with 3,667 yards and 38 TD catches. Plus, Rodgers was deadly inside the 20 with an NFL-best 107 passer rating.
But the Bengals would prefer to deal with Rodgers in the red zone rather than give up the big play. He and the Giants' Eli Manning led the league with four 70-yard throws last year and Rodgers's 10 balls of 70-plus yards lead the NFL since '08.
The key to what may have been the biggest win of the Marvin Lewis era in Green Bay in the second game of the 2009 season (the week after the Spike Strike loss to Denver in the last 11 seconds) was the six sacks of Rodgers, five by former defensive end Antwan Odom.
Bengals special teams covering Packers returner Randall Cobb.
Cobb, the second-year wide receiver from Kentucky, put the NFL on notice in his first game last season when he went 108 yards with a kick in New Orleans that tied the NFL record. Cobb went on to finish second in the NFL in kick returns with a 27.7-yard average, seventh in punt returns at 11.4, and is a nice test for Bengals units that finished in the top 10 covering both.
Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons has been delighted with the progress since the end of the 2010 season, when core players like safety Jeromy Miles, running back Cedric Peerman, and outside linebacker Vincent Rey emerged. Since then he's added guys like wide receivers Brandon Tate, Andrew Hawkins and safety Taylor Mays, and this year in college free agency he might come out of it with middle linebacker Vontaze Burfcit.
Simmons came in with Lewis in 2003 and he's told him that the team's depth and talent in the kicking game "is not even close" to those days.
"We've (improved) through the draft and guys developing and picking up guys here and there," Simmons said. "A guy like Taylor Mays gets cast aside, they come here and the light comes on. He's always had the ability, but the street is a lonely place. All they want is a little love. When they put forth that effort, it helps everyone."
Simmons is crossing his fingers for the Aug. 31 cut to 53, hoping he can keep his units together. He says the special teams are farther ahead of the curve than normal because their knowledge of the game and scheme is allowing them to play fast.
"You've got the pieces of the puzzle," he said. "You've got to keep them in the same box."
There's some interesting cross-coaching going on.
Along with Lewis and Capers, there are the two head coaches, Lewis and Green Bay's Mike McCarthy. They were assistants at the University of Pittsburgh in 1990 and 1991, when McCarthy and Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum were graduate assistants and Lewis was the linebackers coach.
Plus, Lewis coached Packers linebackers coach Kevin Greene with the Steelers and in his second season here the Bengals picked up Packers tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot to start at center after practicing just one day.
Lewis has deep affection for Greene and made sure he went across the field to say hello when he showed up Thursday.
"He still has the same patience with people that don't play up to his standard," Lewis said with a smile this week. "He's got skins on the wall of the standard you need to play to. That's the key to Kevin Greene. They look very prepared, very physical. Kevin took advantage of every mental tip that he could get and that's what you see from their guys."
Cedric Benson's Packers debut comes in the house where he had three straight 1,000-yard seasons and became the first Bengals back in history to help the Bengals to two playoff berths with 1,000-yard seasons.
He may have a say in who becomes the Bengals backup middle linebacker with Rey Maualuga (sprained MCL) out again. Everyone knows Benson is going to try and show the Bengals they whiffed on not re-signing him, so get the pads down. It's a great look for Burfict and third-year man Roddrick Muckelroy in their roster battle royale to back up Maualuga.
Of course, there's a shot they could both make it. They are playing well enough. When Burfict went down with a concussion last week in Atlanta, Muckelroy came on to lead the team in tackles a week after Burfict logged an interception.
Simmons loves what both guys give him on special teams and says Burfict "has a great football mind. It's uncommon for a young player."