Rookie Jordan Willis sees one of the best Sunday.
BENGALS DEs JORDAN WILLIS and CARL LAWSON VS. PACKERS QB AARON RODGERS
The last time the Bengals played the Packers, there was an odd moment that was even odder than the 34-30 Cincinnati win. And that was odd. The Bengals, it will be recalled, allowed 30 straight points on Sept. 22, 2013 at Paul Brown Stadium when the defense was on the field for all but 1:21 of the final 10:49 to end an 81-snap siege.
As defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer scanned his call sheet during a timeout in the first half, he felt Rodgers staring at him.
"I kind of just nodded at him. He still kept looking," said Zimmer the next day. "So then I gave him a thumbs up, kind of like 'Hey, I respect you' and he gave me a salute. That was kind of funny."
These days, four years to the day, Rodgers is saluting Zimmer twice a year as the head coach of the Vikings. But no doubt he has the same kind of respect for current defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. The Bengals are fifth in defense and tied for seventh in scoring and have allowed nothing but two long plays in the first two games.
Plus, Guenther who was Zimmer's third-down guru when the Packers went 4-for-13 on a day the Bengals blitzed more than normal and sacked Rodgers four times while driving him to a 65.5 passer rating, a stunner for a guy who came in off 10 straight road games with at least a 100 rating.
Sure, left end Carlos Dunlap knocked down two passes in the last drive and right end Michael Johnson tipped the day's last snap with Rodgers pawing at the Bengals 20 on fourth-and-five with 1:21 left.
But it's a different ballgame. The Bengals don't have linebacker Vontaze Burfict (who talked Zimmer into another set on that fourth-down snap), the home-field advantage, or the same set of veteran pass rushers in Guenther's nickel arsenal.
But what is the same is that healthy respect for the 33-year-old Rodgers, still at the top of his game with a rocket arm, hair-trigger release, and a magician's knack for pulling yards out of black holes. From Hail Marys to scramble plays to precise slants and outs. He's only one of four quarterbacks ever to throw for 35,000 yards and run for 2,500.
Just ask Bengals middle linebacker Kevin Minter, who was on the field a few years ago when the Cardinals did the unthinkable and gave up a Hail Mary at the end of a play-off game with Rodgers pirouetting to his left and falling away while he heaved into the end zone from midfield for wide receiver Jeff Janis.
"The game was supposed to be over. If anybody has the arm strength, he did and he put it in the end zone and (Janis) made a great catch," Minter says. "I think I was dropped back in zone, kind of just spying him. It didn't matter … I've never seen a Hail Mary completed since I've been in the league. Well, even in college, I've never had anybody complete a Hail Mary on any defense I was on. To be a part of that was like, OK, this guy's pretty damn good."
The guys who were here in 2013 saw plenty up close, too.
"One or two. However you want to cut it," says safety George Iloka, who made his third NFL start vs. Rodgers. "Apples and oranges. He and (Tom) Brady obviously are the two best quarterbacks in the league. … He's consistent. He's got a high completion percentage. Every time he throws it is caught. For us we can't look too much into that. We have to limit the completion yardages if that makes sense. He's able to extend plays with his feet. As a secondary you have to cover a little longer and give your D-line time to get there."
The charge for the defense is as basic as it gets. It's like playing another Hall-of-Famer, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, so good when the play goes all to hell. The line has to contain Rodgers in the pocket and not let him wander to the perimeter, and the secondary has to cover that extra second.
Cornerback Adam Jones, who played all but one snap that day, say he's got a release you just don't see.
"He's the best as far as releasing the ball. And he can put the ball everywhere," Jones says. "We have to plaster our guys in coverage and let the guys up front get to him. He sat behind Brett Favre, one of the greatest ever, a great mentor and he learned some things. His arm strength is remarkable."
In the opener, the Bengals allowed a 48-yard TD pass on basically a slant. Last week they allowed a 49-yard scramble for a TD. Rodgers lives on that kind of stuff. They can't do what they did against Houston's Deshawn Watson on third-and-15 and turn their backs in coverage.
"Any quarterback that's good at extending plays you want to stay in coverage and give your D-line time to get there," Iloka says. "That's the challenge for us this week. We'll be practicing on those things. When the pocket breaks down and you get into scramble mode trying to latch on guys, but that's one of the hard things to do."
Dunlap, who knocked down the third-down pass before Johnson got the fourth-down pass, lockers next to Willis and he's been telling the rookie they have to rush as a group.
"Get after him. Hit him. He doesn't like to be hit. That's the case 16 weeks out of the season but some guys more than others don't like to be hit," Dunlap says. "He throws the ball quick and is ready to get in there. If you can't hit him get your hands up and try to get a hand on the ball."
Watching him play Atlanta last Sunday night also reminded them how tough he is. Rodgers didn't have his starting tackles and he took some hellacious shots. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga (ankle) figures to be back for Dunlap, but not left tackle David Bakhitiari for Willis and Mike Johnson.
"Your eyes light up but once a veteran quarterback gets hit he's going to address it first thing on Monday," Dunlap says of the backups. "I feel like they got some guys healthy. If we get the opportunity we are going to hit him too but he is going to try to limit those opportunities after going through the rough week he went through the previous week. "
Willis: "He presents so many different challenges. The scrambles. Trying to buy more time. Getting outside the pocket. You can't lose contain. He likes for the defensive ends to rush past and then he steps up in the B gap. We have to be smarter than what we've seen people be on tape. If we rush as a group and everybody stays where they should be, we should be fine."
If Willis sounds like he's been around the block, that's why the Bengals love him. He's a rookie who seems like he's been around a decade. And he'll be around plenty Sunday he continues to emerge as key regular in what is turning into Guenther's revolving door up front. Seven linemen played at least 26 percent of the snaps last time out against the Texans, including rookie linebacker Carl Lawson taking the bulk of his 17 snaps as a pass rusher.
Willis got his first NFL start in place of Michael Johnson and offered another productive effort. With 45 snaps, only Dunlap and tackle Geno Atkins played more. He showed how he's the NFL's fastest rookie down lineman when on one play he went step-for-step with Watson on a zone read and ran him out of bounds for nothing.
He better be ready to do that Sunday. Not that Rodgers is running a ton of zone reads, but he's not shy about running.
"If (Rodgers) takes off, you better run after him," Jones says.
"Mess up his timing," Lawson says. "Mess up his timing. Keep him in the pocket."
That seems to be the idea. Knock the receivers off their routes and don't let them develop any timing with Rodgers.
"You've got to plaster receivers. The play's never over until it's over," Minter says. "He can put it anywhere. Your guy is always open when you're playing Aaron Rodgers. If your back is turned, he can still fit it into tight windows. He's famous for that back shoulder. There's nobody that accurate … We've got to try to put pressure on him, as much as you can. But even with that, when he's running for his life, he still makes good throws."
Guenther has no qualms putting his kid rushers in there against one of the league's icy veterans. Not only are Willis and Lawson making their first NFL road trip, but there is also defensive end Chris Smith. Smith again played more than half the snaps against the Texans after three years in Jacksonville he couldn't get on the field. In fact, when the Jags got their shot against Rodgers, he was inactive.
"I like all of them. We've got a lot of young guys," Guenther says. "(In) the first two ballgames we weren't ahead and the chances for a pure pass rush were a little bit limited. We've seen more runs than anybody in the league. I think we've seen 77 runs already in the first two ballgames. Hopefully when we get our chance and they open up the set, we can rush and we'll see it happen."
Willis salutes Rodgers, but he feels like he had his Welcome To The NFL moment a few months ago.
"I'm already walking into an NFL locker room next to guys like A.J. Green and Geno Atkins, guys I used to watch," Willis says. "I've got a lot of respect (for Rodgers), but it's a challenge more than anything."
Cincinnati Bengals host practice at Paul Brown Stadium Practice Fields 9/21/2017