Packers take big step in victory over Bengals

Packers beat Cincinnati 27-13
Packers take big step in victory over Bengals

The Green Bay Packers figure to win many more – and more important – games in 2012 than the one the won on Thursday night.

But after dropping their first two exhibition games for the first time since the distraction-filled summer of 2008 – you remember that, right? – there were plenty of good things to take out of their 27-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The final outcome was simply a bonus.

“Winning’s fun. I’ve never had a problem with winning,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who improved to 13-14 all-time in preseason games. “But the bigger objective is the evaluation of our team. So we come out here to win – we always come out to win, that’s the biggest part of playing the game, don’t get me wrong – but preseason is different.

“After we watch the tape and evaluate it, I’m hopeful we hit all our targets as far as the amount of time each player was slated to play. It’s important to our evaluation process.”

That evaluation process will lead to 37 players being trimmed from the roster before the season – the roster reduction to 75 comes first, and while the deadline is Monday at 3 p.m., the Packers figure to make some of their moves well before that – but this game more than any other was about getting the starters ready for the games that count on a team that has gone 29-8 over the past two years, including its Super Bowl XLV title.

“I think so,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers replied when asked if he felt the starters were now ready for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against San Francisco at Lambeau Field. “We hit a ton of plays tonight in the first half and got into a good rhythm and moved the ball pretty effectively.

“I think we did enough tonight to satisfy Coach. Obviously, we have stuff to work on and self-scout, but I think we’re going to be ready.

After the Rodgers-led offense managed just one touchdown in its first six possessions in the first two preseason games, the unit moved to midfield before its opening series stalled, ending in a punt. But the No. 1 offense’s next two drives ended in touchdowns – Rodgers TD runs of 12 and 5 yards – as the league’s highest-scoring offense from a year ago seemed to get in rhythm.

Going 57 yards in five plays on the first scoring drive, Rodgers started with a deep ball off play-action to Jordy Nelson that somehow did not end in a pass-interference call from the replacement officials. No matter, as Rodgers came right back and hit Greg Jennings for 19 yards and 18 yards on successive plays before an 8-yard completion to tight end Tom Crabtree set up his first TD run.

After the starting defense forced its second straight three-and-out punt, the Packers unveiled their newest weapon, ex-Bengals running back Cedric Benson. After not carrying in his first series, Benson ran twice for 8- and 9-yard gains – the longest runs by a Packers back so far this preseason – and another Rodgers scramble set up first-and-goal from the Cincinnati 4. While Benson was stuffed for a 1-yard loss on the next play, Rodgers scrambled for his second TD to push the Packers’ lead to 14-0.

“So far so good, and I think it can only get better,” said Benson, who finished the night with 38 yards on six carries.

The Packers’ next offensive possession did not end as well, as Rodgers threw what he termed “a real bad ball” to James Jones that Cincinnati’s Terence Newman intercepted. The Bengals settled for a field goal, however, as the starting defense rallied following a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line with an Erik Walden pressure forcing an incompletion on first down, D.J. Smith and A.J. Hawk stuffing running back Cedric Peerman for a 2-yard loss on second down and Walden sacking Andy Dalton for a 9-yard loss on third down.

“Hey, first-and-goal from the 1, to me the favor is to the offense,” McCarthy said. “Those are the types of things that I talk about throughout preseason. You can’t really conduct that or simulate that in practice – a goal-line stand, backed-up situations, fourth-and-3s, four-down territory. Anytime you get a chance to get to those in preseason, they’re excellent learning experiences that you spend a little more time on in your film study and continue to build on or clean it up if it doesn’t go the right way. All those situations are big, and that’s something we can build off of defensively.”

Again, while it won’t matter when the 49ers come to town, for a unit that finished last season dead last in the 32-team NFL in yards allowed, it was notable.

“They did a good job. They did a real good job,” Rodgers said. “It’s fun to see those guys play the way they know they’re capable of playing.”

Rodgers called it a night at halftime after one more series (which stalled and ended with a fourth-down incompletion from Cincinnati’s 45-yard line) having completed 12 of 22 passes for 154 yards with an interception (57.8 rating) while running six times for 52 yards and those two TDs.

Much-maligned backup Graham Harrell took over after that, starting the second half with his 11th three-and-out series in 16 preseason possessions. It didn’t get much better after that, as shoddy protection didn’t help him and a fumbled handoff between him and fullback John Kuhn set up the Bengals’ lone touchdown of the night, pulling Cincinnati (2-1) within 17-13.

Nevertheless, the backups on defense made sure the lead held up, as a Sam Shields interception set Harrell up for a field-goal drive and second-year outside-turned-inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore’s pick-six 27-yard interception return for a touchdown pushed the lead to 27-13 and sealed the victory.

“As fun as tonight was to win – it is preseason but it’s a lot more fun (and) the coaches treat you a little better when you’re winning these games – tomorrow’s a tough day, as you go from 90 to 75, so 15 guys are going to be not with us anymore,” Rodgers said. “That’s tough; you get to know guys and they’re not with you. You wish them well, but it’s a tough day for those guys. So, as fun as this is, you kind of know that’s coming tomorrow.”

As Rodgers pointed out, some of the guys on the field protecting that lead in the final moments won’t be around in a few days. That said, for the ones who will be around after the Aug. 31 final cuts, this was an important step forward.

“We got better today,” McCarthy said. “So yes, we’re a step closer to being ready for the season than we were when we left Green Bay. That was the goal; that was the objective – to improve, to grow and take that step and I thought we accomplished that tonight. But more importantly, the video will tell the true story.”