That's the hard-learned lesson from Sunday's 31-24 debacle against the Cincinnati Bengals. Dom Capers knows how to call a defense and his blitz-happy 3-4 alignment is a proven winner, but that boring old 4-3 isn't so bad when the players are doing the little things – such as executing and tackling.
The Packers didn't do enough of either against the Bengals. Cedric Benson, a prodigious first-round bust in Chicago with only five career 100-yard games in his first four-plus seasons, never has averaged more than 4.1 yards per carry in his career and failed to top 3.5 the last two seasons. But he might as well have been the Vikings' Adrian Peterson on Sunday, either running through big holes or running through arm tackles or falling forward for additional yardage to finish practically every run.
Benson averaged 6.0 yards per carry in the first half and finished the game with a 4.9-yard average after bludgeoning the Packers for 141 yards on 29 carries. He set the tone early with three 12-yard runs as the Bengals waltzed to an opening-drive touchdown against a defense that missed its noon wakeup call. He wasn't stopped for a loss until late in the third quarter. Only three of his 29 attempts went for no gain or lost yardage.
"We don't expect to give up 100 yards to anybody, so that was a surprise," said linebacker A.J. Hawk, who finished with three tackles. "They just executed and played really physical and played well. We obviously didn't play as well as we should have. There's no secret in football. There's no secret potion. Whoever's going to come out there and play physical and make more plays is going to win. They came out and we couldn't make them one-dimensional. Couldn't stop the run. That gives them a lot of options."
And that was the story line. With its first-down success, Cincinnati converted 9-of-14 third downs, a 64 percent success rate.
"That's the big down," linebacker Aaron Kampman said. "You've got to find a way to get off the field. We've got to do a better job on first and second down."
On the Bengals' first touchdown drive, a seven-play, 63-yard romp, they didn't even face a third down, with the first-down plays covering 12 yards, 12 yards, 11 yards, 12 yards and 4 yards.
In the second quarter, when Cincinnati scored two touchdowns to earn a 21-21 stalemate, the Bengals converted 4-of-5 third downs. The first was a third-and-goal from the 1, the second was third-and-3 and the fourth was a third-and-goal from the 5.
All of this from a team that scored seven points at home last week against Denver.
"If teams can run the ball against you, they control the down and distance and they keep the third downs to very third-and-manageable," Capers said. "History tells you when teams are in third-and-5 or less, their conversion rate's going to be much higher than if it's third-and-6 or more."
Those third-and-shorts, of course, are preceded by moving the ball on first down. The Bengals had 14 snaps on first down in the first half, turning those into 114 yards, or an average of 8.1 yards. That includes seven carries for 42 yards by Benson.
Simply put, all of those exotic pressures are stuck in Capers' playbook if an offense is consistently in favorable down-and-distance situations.
"You can't do it. It doesn't do any good to run those pressures if they're running the ball in there for 4, 5 yards a clip. That's where everything starts," Capers said.
The one third down that sticks in Capers' craw, however, was a stunning third-and-34 conversion with less than 4 minutes remaining in the first half. Kampman said it brought back memories of fourth-and-26 at Philadelphia. The Bengals were backed up to their 7-yard line. Punt from there, and the Packers get the ball about midfield and have a chance to build on their 21-14 lead. Instead, a screen to tight end Daniel Coats turned into a 38-yard gain. Adding to the pain, defensive end Cullen Jenkins hustled down the field to strip the ball, but Laveranues Coles beat cornerback Al Harris to the recovery.
"That play was frustrating all the way around," Capers said. "We called in an alert for the screen. They pump-faked and we had two or three guys play the screen to the back, and they threw the delayed screen to the tight end. But still, when you've got that kind of down and distance, you should pick up people to tackle the guy and get off the field."
The Bengals turned that play into a touchdown, with the score coming on Palmer's 5-yard touchdown to a wide-open Chris Henry on third-and-goal.
"I think there was some doubt," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "I'm not going to say confusion, more doubt. I don't think we played our fastest out there. Those guys were running the ball downhill and they never stopped. That was the whole thing in their game plan. Once they got the ball moving downhill, play-calling became easy for them."
So much for the good vibrations coming from the end of a stellar preseason and rousing season-opening victory over the Bears.
"That's something we never would have imagined could happen," said cornerback Charles Woodson, who was the one bright spot on Sunday with two interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown. "We might have been feeling good about coming off a good game last week, felt good about what we did in the preseason, but at this point, the real bullets are flying and teams are coming in here not to play down to all the type that we had."
"We've got to have a long day tomorrow," he added. "It will be hard to swallow."
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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. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.