Football is a game of adjustments, and it'll be the Packers' turn to adjust during the bye week.
At crunch time on Sunday, the Bengals had Green Bay's offense figured out. Whether it was a lack of confidence in the offensive line's ability to pass protect or some other reason, Aaron Rodgers threw one short pass after another in the first two games and had done so again against the Bengals.
"He was getting it out pretty quick, so we knew we had to get our hands up," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "He was doing three-step drops that whole last drive, so we had to get our hands up."
Calling it "semi-pointless" to fully go after Rodgers, Dunlap and his bookend, Michael Johnson, changed their focus. And it probably won the game for the Bengals. On the final series, Dunlap batted down two passes and Johnson batted down another on fourth down to seal the victory.
How remarkable were those three batted-down passes? Over the last three seasons, according to ProFootballFocus.com, Rodgers had 18 passes batted down in 54 games. That's an averaged of 0.3 per game.
As we've pointed out on several occasions, the Packers have the most inexperienced tandem of tackles in the league with rookie David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay. Logically, the play-calling has had to compensate for that fact.
According to league data, Rodgers' average pass travels 7.57 yards through the air. That ranks 22nd in the league. Last year, his average pass traveled 8.09 yards. In 2011, it was 9.07 yards. In 2010, it was 9.3 yards.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Rodgers is averaging 2.53 seconds in the pocket (passes and sacks included). That's 23rd in the league. Last year, Rodgers averaged 2.88 seconds in the pocket. The ball's been thrown in 2.5 seconds or less on 61.5 percent of his dropbacks. Only six quarterbacks have a higher percentage. Last year, the ball came out that quickly on 50.2 percent of his attempts.
"You're not forced to run them," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said of quick passes. "They've been effective for us the previous week and there were other instances in that game where they were effective. We were trying to do some things to combat their rush by cutting the defensive linemen up front. It's just unfortunate that those tips occurred when they did."
For the third time in as many games, the Packers' defense failed to slam the door on an opponent.
Shields intercepts a pass to Green. John Grieshop/Getty
Before slamming Dom Capers for bad play-calling or ripping his unit for falling short at crunch time, it's probably a good idea to look at the inactive list. Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward haven't played a snap all season. They were joined on the sideline for the second half on Sunday by Clay Matthews.
While injuries are not an excuse, it's inexcusable to gloss over the fact that arguably the team's three most important defenders were on the sideline for the second half on Sunday.
"Well, you know we've been going without Casey and Morgan for the first three weeks," Capers said. "Obviously, you like to have Clay on the field every down. You see how he impacts the game. Not many guys can make that play he made on that short yardage. Those are the kind of games (plays) that turn a game around."
Just look at the stats. In the first half, the Bengals had eight possession, which netted seven first downs, 119 yards, one real scoring drive and four takeaways (including a fumble returned for a touchdown). In the second half, with Matthews out, the Bengalis had four possessions (not counting the take-a-knee to end the game), which netted 12 first downs, 210 yards, two touchdowns and no takeaways.
"Before our offense had taken a snap, we were down 14-0," Capers said. "Over the next six series, I think they had 20 plays. We had two three-and-outs, four takeaways, scored a touchdown and turned the ball over three times in good field position for the offense. I thought our guys really showed a lot of character in terms of the way they responded because the game could've gotten out of control very quickly had we not responded that way. Unfortunately, we weren't able to finish it off."
About the only thing that made sense in the handling of the return job was the team's decision to release Jeremy Ross on Monday.
This isn't Monday morning quarterbacking here. We said as much at the time last season. Heading into the playoffs, how could the Packers have possibly trusted Ross, given he dropped a perfect spiral on the botched lateral that almost cost the Packers the game at Chicago? Heading into this season, how could the Packers have possibly trusted Ross, given the muffed punt that turned a 14-7 lead into an embarrassing blowout at San Francisco?
Ultimately, the Packers didn't trust Ross. Sure, he made the team — albeit by default as none of the other return prospects did a darned thing in training camp — but every time the Packers needed to make sure the ball was caught, Randall Cobb was in the game and Ross was on the sideline.
After special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum was asked about Ross' confidence in light of the playoff disaster, we asked Slocum about the team's confidence in Ross.
"I think going back to last spring until this point, any time I've been asked a question or our head coach about who our returner was, Randall's always been part of the mix. That hasn't changed," Slocum said.
Pressed again about the team's confidence in Ross because it kept replacing him for important punts, Slocum said: "We had a plan going into the season that Randall was part of the return game. So, I think everybody that's been involved was aware of that and that wasn't a factor, I don't believe."
After two games of lining up Shields at left cornerback and Williams at right cornerback rather than matching a specific corner against a specific receiver, Capers changed course and matched Shields against All-Pro A.J. Green.
All things considered, it's another feather in the cap of one of the league's best young corners. Yes, Shields was beaten for a touchdown when he missed a jam and didn't have any safety help, but he helped limit Green to four catches for 46 yards. Green was targeted eight times. Shields came up with one interception and limited Green to 8 yards after the catch. Green had 8 or fewer yards after the catch in just six of 36 career games before Sunday.
That's encouraging news with Calvin Johnson coming up after the bye.
"Sam's made progress," Capers said. "We felt good about him last year, we feel good about him this year. He's made some impact plays. You saw the one yesterday, that was a really nice play he made on that interception."
Assuming Hayward returns after the bye, the Packers will have a good problem with trying to find roles for Hayward, Shields, Williams and Davon House.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.