World's Best Preview: Receivers Doing it All

If it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing. Tipping the scales at 20 points and 3,400 words, we guarantee that our game preview is overflowing with news and notes you haven't seen anywhere. Leading off: The Packers' receivers are catching and blocking better than they have in years.

The Green Bay Packers' receivers have been exceptional during the first two games.

Randall Cobb is on pace for 128 receptions for 1,888 yards and 16 touchdowns.

James Jones is on pace for 88 receptions for 1,424 yards.

Jordy Nelson is on pace for 80 receptions for 1,568 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Spearheaded by those three, the Packers lead the league in yards after the catch and total yards and is second in scoring and passing yards entering Sunday's game at the Cincinnati Bengals

They're also doing the little things well.

According to STATS, the Packers are tied for the fewest drops in the league with one. That would be the bobble-turned-interception by Jermichael Finley against San Francisco. According to the much tougher graders at ProFootballFocus.com, the Packers have two drops: Finley's against the 49ers and one by Nelson on the first play of last week's game in which the ball bounced off Nelson's outstretched hands.

"It's an emphasis every day. It is stressed every day," Nelson said. "We know how important it is. With what we're able to do with the ball once we get it, you don't want to lose that opportunity. I don't know what the stats would be but if you looked probably throughout a game, if there's a drop on a possession, the possession probably doesn't turn out too good, so it's a momentum killer and it puts you behind the chains."

Drops have been an issue for the offense as a whole over the past several seasons. According to Pro Football Focus, Green Bay had the sixth-most drops in 2012, tied for second-most in 2011, tied for 14th-most in 2010, had the most in 2009 and the fourth-most in 2008. That's an average ranking of 5.6 over the past five seasons.

"It is not acceptable in our room," receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "And we're going to continue to emphasize the importance of not allowing that to happen. That's our approach. You continue to show why, you continue to show situations that it can occur, again, to prevent. We talk about fundamentals. We spend a lot of our time on fundamentals, so you would like to see it show up on the tape."

The receivers also have stepped up their game as blockers. In just about every one of James Starks' productive runs last week, a receiver was involved. Frequently, that was Nelson. At one point, he even motioned into the backfield to help lead a sweep.

"The No. 1 thing with blocking is the mind-set, in my humble opinion," Bennett said. "That's the starting point and then it's more about applying our fundamentals and our principles, but (Nelson) he did have some really nice blocks from this past weekend, but we've got to get better. That's an area that we're targeting to improve on. You look at the tape, it was a lot of positives but it was some negatives that we got to clean up. They understand what it's going to take and they know we're going to hold each other accountable until we continue to be great. That's the goal, to improve on a daily basis."

2. FINLEY'S FEET

The numbers say it all for Finley.

Finley has caught 11 passes for 121 yards, giving him an average of 11.0 yards per reception. The average length of the passes caught is just 1.18 yards. That means 9.82 yards per reception are coming on YAC.

Finley ranks eighth in the league in yards after the catch per catch. Only St. Louis' Jared Cook (10.38; fifth) and San Diego's Antonio Gates (10.10; sixth) are better among tight ends.

"When you get your hands on the ball, it's what you do with it that's going to dictate a lot of how many snaps you're getting and how much playtime you're getting," tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said this week.

It's all part of increased confidence for Finley as the season-ending knee injury of 2010 becomes a distant memory. In 2011, he averaged 13.9 yards per reception — 9.8 yards through the air and 4.1 after the catch. In 2012, he averaged 10.9 yards per reception — 6.2 through the air and 4.7 after the catch.

A lot of that YAC in 2012 came during the second half of the season, when he chalked up six of his eight broken tackles. In two games this season, he's broken five tackles. Three of them came against Washington, when every inch of his 27-yard gain came after the catch. That play was so impressive that Jones was docked by the coaching staff for watching that play rather than blocking someone.

"I was expecting him to come out here and have a huge year, and he's started off well," Jones said. "Hopefully he continues to just have the confidence that he's the best tight end in the game. Because when he puts it all together – confidence and his playmaking ability – there's really nobody that's truly better than him in the National Football League, in my opinion."

Fontenot pointed to Finley being bigger and stronger this year in enabling him to run through would-be tacklers.

"I get guys that go straight for my legs," Finley said. "They're not going to hit me in my chest or in my thigh, they're going to go straight ankle tackle, and it makes me a dangerous player when I don't have to worry about somebody chopping me in my knee and me tearing something in my knee. Other than that, I ain't got no worries right now. From this point on, it's going to be hard to hit me and bring me down, I promise you that."

3. DOING FINE ON FIRST DOWN

It's not quite the proverbial immovable object vs. the irresistible force, but first down should be quite a tug of war between the Packers' offense and the Bengals' defense.

The Packers are averaging 8.05 yards per first down play. They are one of only three teams even averaging 7.0 yards on first down. Philadelphia was No. 2 entering the week at 7.86, the Giants third at 7.74 and Buffalo (6.67) and Washington (6.59) a distant fourth and fifth.


Nelson's second touchdown came on first down. Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports

"That's key," Nelson said. "You want to stay ahead of the chains. Whether it's first down, second down, you want to make it third-and-short. If you get a chunk on first down, it allows you maybe to take a shot on second down, as well, because you kind of have that waste down type thing. You can take a shot and see what you can get. If you don't, you're still in third-and-short."

Cincinnati's defense will provide a stiff test. The Bengals are seventh in the league with 4.37 yards allowed per first-down play.

On the other side of the first-down equation, Cincinnati's offense is eighth with 6.07 yards per play while Green Bay's defense is just 27th with 6.57 yards allowed per snap.

"First down is huge," Clay Matthews said. "Obviously, you're always trying to win the first- and second-down battle. Anytime you can hold them to 3 yards and under, it makes a lot different game than if they're allowed to get 4 or more. You look at teams' tendencies when you shut them down in first down or limit the run or have an incomplete pass thrown, it definitely changes things up to where you understand what's going to come next."

If 4 yards is the magic number, both offenses are efficient. Cincinnati has gained at least that much on 53.4 percent of its first downs while Green Bay checks in at 53.1 percent. That's fifth and sixth in the league, respectively.

THE OTHER SIDELINE

— 4. In 2010, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis had Chad Ochocinco as one wide receiver and Terrell Owens as the other.

Needless to say, after enduring the selfish antics of those two, Lewis is thrilled to have A.J. Green as his star receiver.

"You'll have a difficult time getting three words from him," Lewis said when asked to talk about Green ahead of Green's conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. "If you would draw up what a receiver looks like and acts like, he would look like that but most of them don't act like A.J. Green."

"It's a great thing as a coach," Lewis added. "It's a bad thing for the writers. There's not much story to it. All he does is come to work and be first at everything he's tried to do in his life."

Green, the team's top pick in 2011, ranked second in the NFL with 162 receptions and sixth with 2,407 receiving yards in 2011 and 2012. He had a touchdown in nine consecutive games last year. Since 1964, only Jerry Rice (1987) accomplished that feat. He caught nine passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1 against Chicago and settled for six catches for 41 yards against Pittsburgh on Monday. That puts Green (6-4, 207) on pace for 120 receptions for 1,624 yards and 16 touchdowns.

"He can pretty much do anything," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "He runs routes well, catches the ball well, gets out of his breaks well. He does a lot of things right. I think he's a good all-around receiver. I can say good but he's better than good. He's better than good. He'll be a tough task for whoever's on him."

Last year, Williams would have followed Green all over the field. This year, Williams is lining up as the right cornerback and Sam Shields as the left corner. With Williams playing the nickel (slot) position at times last week against Washington, it's led to speculation that Williams might match up on Green, either every play or certain situations.

"If that's what he wants me to do, if that's what he thinks is best for the defense, then I have no issue doing that at all. Obviously," Williams said. "Our team has grown. Guys have grown throughout this secondary. I think that's where the whole right-left thing comes from. Guys have grown and are maturing and they have confidence in our secondary. More than I can cover the top of receivers. That's a good thing."

— 5. Green's the focal point of the passing game but the addition of first-round pick Tyler Eifert (6-6, 250) has given the Bengals a one-two punch at tight end with Jermaine Gresham (6-5, 260). Gresham, a first-round pick in 2010 and a two-time Pro Bowler, has 11 catches for 101 yards. He trained during the offseason with four-time Olympic gold-medal sprinter Michael Johnson. Eifert has eight catches for 113 yards, including a 61-yarder against Pittsburgh.

"It's enabled us to put more pressure on people that way because both guys can be used as receivers, both guys are excellent blockers. We're very blessed to have both players," Lewis said.

Added defensive coordinator Dom Capers: "What they do with them is they can go with two-tight end personnel and run their two-back offense where they put the second one in there at the fullback position. Or, they can go two tight ends and run their three-receiver offense where one of them is out in a wide receiver position. So, what they're doing, they don't want to let you know by their personnel whether they're going to be in a two back, or they're going to have both of them at the line of scrimmage (tight to the tackles), or if they're going to have one of them out as a wide receiver."

— 6. The Bengals' second-round pick, Giovani Bernard, has given them a one-two punch in the backfield with veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Bernard, who was the first running back off the board in April, is a 5-foot-9, 208-pound dynamo with electric open-field skills. He had a 27-yard touchdown catch and 7-yard touchdown run against Pittsburgh last week. For the year, he has 12 rushes for 60 yards and two receptions for 35 yards.

Green-Ellis' numbers aren't spectacular, with 36 carries for just 100 yards. However, it's worth remembering that he was the NFL's best short-yardage runner last year by converting 14-of-15 times on third-and-1. He's 2-for-2 this season.

"BenJarvus Green-Ellis was with in New England when I was there, and he's a north-south (runner)," Capers said. "He'll slide, plant his foot and look for the crease and likes to run downhill. Bernard, their rookie is very quick and good speed and had a big play for a touchdown Monday night. But they're different styles. Bernard is a little bit more of an outside runner. Green-Ellis is more of an inside runner."

— 7. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, who quarterbacked TCU to a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin in 2010, has gotten better in each of his three seasons with the Bengals. As a rookie, he completed 58.1 percent of his passes and averaged 6.6 yards per attempt. In 2012, he improved to 62.3 percent and 6.9 yards per attempt. This season, he's up to 65.4 percent with 7.2 yards per attempt.

In his last 223 pass attempts at home, he's thrown just three interceptions.

With a 20-14 record, he has led the team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons. If he makes it 3-for-3, he'd join Pat Haden, Dan Marino, Bernie Kosar and Joe Flacco as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to achieve that feat.

"He's doing very well," Lewis said. "I made the comment this year that the first year he was our quarterback, then he became the leader of the offense and now he's basically the leader of the football team. It's good. He's more of a quiet personality but you see him growing and spreading his wings as a person all the time."

NOTEWORTHY NUMBERS

— 8. When the ball gets into the red zone, Rodgers and Dalton are among the best quarterbacks in the business.

Since taking over as Green Bay's starter in 2008, Rodgers has thrown 114 touchdown passes against just two interceptions while in the red zone. That ratio of 57.0-to-1 is No. 1 in the league by a mile. Peyton Manning has thrown 97 touchdowns and four interceptions during that span, a second-best ratio of 24.25-to-1.

Dalton has started all 34 games since being selected in the second round in 2011. He has thrown 36 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the red zone. That's the most red-zone touchdowns without an interception in the league; Seattle's Russell Wilson is next with 19 touchdowns.


Rodgers and Finley celebrate their touchdown. Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports

— 9. Sometimes, it's a chicken-or-egg deal: Does a team have big rushing numbers because it's winning, or is it winning because of those rushing numbers? Regardless, the Bengals are 35-2 under Lewis when they have a running back with at least 25 carries, and they're 36-7 with a 100-yard rusher.

— 10. According to STATS, in games after Green has been held to less than 60 receiving yards, he's bounced back with a 100-yard game on seven of 11 occasions.

— 11. With Rodgers leading the way, the Packers are averaging a league-high 482.5 yards per game. With a superb defensive front four, the Bengals rank seventh with 300.5 yards allowed per game. Green Bay's 965 yards in its first two games is 119 more than its second-best two-game start, back in 1999.

HISTORY LESSONS

— 12. The last time Green Bay played at Cincinnati in the regular season, back in 2005, Brett Favre threw five interceptions in the Bengals' 21-14 victory. Not only was that the most interceptions thrown by Favre — other than the six at St. Louis in the 2001 playoffs — but it matched Cincinnati's record for most interceptions of a single quarterback. The Bengals also had five picks against Chicago's Kyle Orton (2005), Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper (2005) and Oakland's Daryle Lamonica (1969).

— 13. The Favre era, of course, started in the Packers' 24-23 victory over Cincinnati on Sept. 20, 1992. In that game, the Bengals took a 10-0 lead on Carl Pickens' team-record 95-yard punt return for a touchdown. Terrell Buckley, of all people, jump-started the Packers' rally from a 17-3 deficit with a 58-yard touchdown on a punt return.

— 14. On Sept. 26, 1976, the Bengals beat the visiting Packers 28-7. Green Bay quarterbacks Lynn Dickey and Carlos Brown combined to go 5-of-23 for 45 yards with two interceptions. With sacks included, the Packers finished with minus-35 net passing yards. That's a team record for both franchises.

— 15. It's not a Packers note but there is a Packers connection. When Andy Reid led the Chiefs against Philadelphia on Thursday night, it marked the second time in NFL history in which a coach with at least 14 years with one team has squared off against his former team. The other? When Curly Lambeau's Redskins faced Green Bay in 1952, with Green Bay winning 35-20 in Milwaukee. (Lambeau did not coach against the Packers in 1950 and 1951 when he led the Chicago Cardinals.)

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— 16. College free agents will play a key role when the Packers have the ball. Five of Cincinnati's linebackers went undrafted, including starters James Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowler with the Steelers, and Vontaze Burfict, who had a team-high 174 tackles as a rookie last year. The only Bengals linebacker who was drafted was middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, a second-round pick in 2009 who played alongside åMatthews at USC.

For Green Bay, center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right tackle Don Barclay went undrafted.

— 17. From 2010 through 2012 — including Super Bowl XLV against Pittsburgh — Rodgers has played 13 games against AFC foes. Rodgers has thrown 34 touchdowns against four interceptions in those games. He threw 14 touchdowns and one pick against Indianapolis, Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee last season.

— 18. Under McCarthy, the Packers are 5-2 in their games before the bye. Only New Orleans and New England (both 6-1) are better. Since 1994, Green Bay and Seattle are a league-best 14-5 in their games before the bye.

— 19. With 1,807 career completions, Rodgers is one behind Bart Starr for second-most in team history. Favre owns the team record with 5,377 completions and the NFL record with 6,300 completions overall.

"Bart has been a great friend and somebody who's meant a lot to me during my short time here," Rodgers said this week. "He set the bar so high with the success he had here as a player winning all those championships. I've said it before he's a better person than he was a football player. I didn't get to watch him play but that's what everybody tells me about him. He's been a great supporter of mine, him and his wife, and I'm just blessed to know a guy like that. That's one of my role models."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story this week.

— 20. Rodgers, on an encore after joining legendary Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with 480 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a game: "The bar's been set pretty high around here. I just try and remember that I'm just one of 53 to go out there every week and try and do their job as best they can. Obviously, mine gets more attention, more scrutiny, maybe a slightly greater responsibility, but it's a job that I take very seriously and I expect to play well on Sundays. That's because I put a lot of time in during the week, I prepare, I draw on my experience, on my recall from that week when I get in the game and I've got coaches who get the most out of me by not allowing me to be complacent, so I just remember I've got to do my job, everybody else does as well, and when it comes together, you can have the kind of success you had on Sunday."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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