After the first two weeks of the season, the Cincinnati Bengals have the No. 1 pass defense and No. 5 overall defense in the league, along with a heavy dose of “Yeah, but…” skepticism coming from outside the locker room.
That’s because those lofty rankings come after facing one quarterback who was still recovering from a bad back (Joe Flacco), and another who was a rookie making his first NFL start (Deshaun Watson).
Sunday afternoon the Bengals will either answer the skeptics or validate them when they take on Aaron Rodgers and the explosive Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
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“He’s one of the best, I know that,” Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “You always like to go against the best guys. It’s a good challenge for us, and hopefully we respond.”
Under Rodgers, a six-time Pro Bowler and two-time MVP, the Packers have finished in the top 10 in passing offense in nine of the 10 seasons he’s been the starter.
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Since 2013, when Rodgers missed seven games with a shoulder injury, he’s thrown 109 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
“I’ve never seen a quarterback that accurate,” said Bengals linebacker Kevin Minter, who has faced — and beaten — Rodgers twice, with both games coming in 2015 when Minter was with Arizona.
“It really doesn’t matter if he’s scrambling, he’s in the pocket, he’s running for his life, he can get the ball downfield,” Minter added. “He’s a gunslinger. He can get it anywhere. He’s a special talent. We’re definitely need to press their receivers this week. If not, we’re going to be in trouble. They’re the best team in the league at the scramble drill. The best.”
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The Bengals are allowing 267 yards per game, including 104.5 through the air. Green Bay ranks fourth in passing offense at 297 yards per game, and that’s after their top two receivers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, left Sunday night’s 34-23 loss at Atlanta with injuries.
With two of his top targets out and both starting tackles inactive, Rodgers did a lot of scrambling Sunday night. The Falcons sacked Rodgers three times and hit him on four other occasions.
“Your eyes light up, but once a veteran quarterback gets hit he’s going to address it first thing on Monday,” Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “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.”
Cincinnati is the only team Rodgers has yet to beat in his 13-year NFL career. The Bengals sacked him six times in a 31-24 win at Lambeau in 2009, and they sacked him four times and intercepted him twice in a 34-30 triumph at PBS in 2013.
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Regardless of how the Bengals fared in those previous games, Guenther said finishing against Rodgers is always a challenge.
“He still moves around really good,” Guenther said. “He can extend plays, run for first downs. I can’t remember how many touchdowns I just saw him run for in the red zone. He’s still athletic, and that’s the challenge for us to make sure he doesn’t beat us that way.”
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While only a handful of Bengals defenders have faced Rodgers more than once in their careers, they know the challenge of facing a quarterback who can extend plays thanks to facing Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger twice a year.
“Any quarterback that’s good at extending plays you want to stay in coverage and give your D-line time to get there,” safety George Iloka said. “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.”
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Outside of allowing a couple of big plays — the 49-yard slant for a touchdown against Baltimore and the 49-yard scramble for a score vs. Houston — it’s been a solid start to the season for the Bengals defense.
But how Guenther’s group plays Sunday against Rodgers and the Packers will say so much more about where the defense stands.
“We have a great opportunity,” Dunlap said. “You go out there against these top offenses. A guy like Aaron Rodgers, who is a future Hall of Famer, doing the throws he can from all different angles, rolling out different ways, the scrambles, the game-breakers, the game-winners, all that. If you stop an offense like that it makes a statement all in itself. You don’t have to say anything about it.”
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