Packers survive poor kicking, Bengals to improve to 4-1
Despite four missed kicks from Mason Crosby, the Packers pulled out their fourth straight victory, emerging with a 25-22 victory over the Bengals on Sunday.
The Green Bay Packers survived four missed kicks from Mason Crosby to emerge victorious over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, improving their record to 4-1. Those misfires, as well as two from Bengals kicker Evan McPherson, became the a source of national schadenfreude as well as the central discussion of the game.
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When did you know Mason Crosby was having the game from hell?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: Missing an extra point doesn't happen frequently, but placekickers do shank those on occasion. When Mason Crosby pushed his first kick of the day wide left, it didn't seem like a harbinger of things to come.
However, when Crosby missed to the left again — this time on a potential go-ahead field-goal attempt just outside the two-minute warning — it seemed like a replay of the veteran kicker's disastrous outing against the Detroit Lions three seasons ago.
From that point, Crosby missed two more field goals, each with the chance to seal a Packers victory. He ultimately nailed the final kick of the game, but the Bengals needed to bungle several opportunities along the way. Without those additional chances, the conversation around Green Bay would take a very different tone.
Peter Bukowski: The 36-yard try with 2:14 left in the game. By the time he lined up for what would have been two more game-winners, I had little faith he’d make them precisely because this miss foretold the horrors to come.
Making matters worse, the Packers misplayed consecutive red-zone trips to set up field goals leading to this miss and the football gods had a smirk on their face about. The possession before, up 19-14, Green Bay hits the shot play to Davante Adams for 59 yards setting up 1st-and-goal. Then they gain 2 total yards on consecutive inside gives to A.J. Dillon and Rodgers has his toss tipped at the line on a potential Randall Cobb target that included nothing particularly interesting in terms of the scheme.
This was the best-schemed offense in football last year for stretches, and consistently the best in the red zone. To see them mishandle that situation so conservatively was stunning.
Then, in the run-up to the aforementioned miss, the Packers get another nothing gain on a Dillon run, but for the Bengals to burn their timeouts. Remember, this is closing in on the two-minute warning. Instead, the play-action boot flood that hasn’t worked literally all season, ends in an incompletion to stop the clock. The capper: Rodgers has Davante Adams wide open in the end zone, but can’t hit him, stopping the clock again and saving Cincinnati two timeouts they desperately needed.
The biggest question coming out of Sunday’s game is …
JBH: … how much longer can the Packers scheme around their backups on offense? Thus far in 2021, that meant the absences along the offensive line, namely David Bakhtiari (ACL) and Elgton Jenkins (ankle). But while that issue grew worse with Josh Myers missing Sunday's game with a finger injury, the lack of a secondary vertical weapon to take pressure off Davante Adams has contributed to the offense stalling out for stretches in each of their five games.
While Aaron Rodgers and Marquez Valdes-Scantling didn't connect frequently before the latter landed on injured reserve, defenses still respected the wideout's speed and called their coverages accordingly. Given the construction of many of the signature plays in Green Bay's playbook — multi-route concepts that pull layers of the defense away from the center of the field and attack the vacated space — the presence of a field-stretcher makes a tremendous difference.
As Jenkins and Myers near their respective returns with Bakhtiari to follow in the not-too-distant future, some of the Packers have to scheme around will soon disappear. But, until Valdes-Scantling or someone else adds a vertical dimension opposite Adams, the offense can't hit the same heights it did during the 2020 season.
PB: … how much of what we’re seeing is because this team is so banged up? That’s the looming question over this team. Green Bay got the win, but in unimpressive fashion, particularly because it included embarrassing gaffes like allowing a two-minute drill 70-yard touchdown to Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow that hung in the air forever and Darnell Savage flat whiffed.
How much of their struggles in the two-minute and red zone defense stem from missing Za’Darius Smith and now Jaire Alexander? Either way, Joe Barry and Matt LaFleur must find an answer as neither player appears likely to return any time soon.
And on offense, is this spread-heavy approach born out of the offensive line questions (even if play-action should theoretically help in pass protection)? Will we see a return to 2020 approach with Elgton Jenkins back in the lineup at left tackle? What about when David Bakhtiari gets back too? This team is still searching for a bit of identity precisely because key players who helped define this team the past two years are hurt.
What we're hearing/seeing
JBH: The Packers' pass defense remains in a weakened state without Za'Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander. However, De'Vondre Campbell's play has mitigated a significant amount of their absence, albeit in different ways.
As Campbell has settled into the defense, Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry has grown more comfortable giving him freedom. On the first play from scrimmage in overtime, Campbell began from the backside of the play as the flat defender, a critical role given how Cincinnati's offense typically attacks.
However, Campbell quickly identified that the slot receiver, rookie Ja'Marr Chase, had vacated the space completely and left nobody to immediately fill it. The veteran linebacker then crashed the middle of the field. Joe Burrow threw wide of his target, wideout Tyler Boyd, allowing Campbell to make a play on the ball.
The Packers haven't employed an off-ball linebacker of Campbell's caliber in years, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed by the team's leader and longest-tenured player.
"I was talking on the sidelines, I don't know if it was [Valdes-Scantling] or somebody else mid-game. And we just said, 'How in the hell was this guy on the street?'" Rodgers said during his post-game press conference. "It's a great pickup by our personnel folks. He can run. He's a great tackler. He's around the ball all the time. He's a great locker-room guy. I mean, it's baffling to me. We're just so thankful to have him because I think as he continues to make plays, his leadership opportunities will continue to grow."
PB: The Adam Schefter report from Sunday morning left me confused. Why wait a few weeks and then have surgery for Jaire Alexander? Why not wait six, eight, even 10 weeks if necessary to let his shoulder heal? After doing some digging, there’s a logical answer that makes everything that’s been said about the injury and the timeline make more sense.
The problem, at least from my perspective, is no one had said it outright. So here’s the deal: In a few weeks, doctors will know if Alexander’s AC sprain is healing. If it is, then it will be reassessed and they’ll have an idea of potential timelines for return. Those can vary wildly, so I won’t speculate.
If it’s not healing, surgery will be the option. Essentially, the doctors will know in a few weeks if it can heal enough to play or if surgery will be required, in which case further waiting would be fruitless.
What seemed like an arbitrary window, at least to me, just got some Windex.
JBH: Entering the middle of October, the Packers defense has demonstrated some growth since its disastrous start against the New Orleans Saints. But while the on-field communication and coverage breakdowns have improved, the unti remains woefully inept once an opposing offense enters the red zone.
Through five games, offenses have reached inside the Green Bay 20-yard line on 13 occasions. Each of those trips resulted in a touchdown. No next worst team in the NFL comes in nearly 10 percentage points lower. While that figure will eventually come down for the Packers, it remains entirely unclear whether Barry can improve it enough for the team to achieve its goals for 2021.
The Packers need to consider all options in addressing their red-zone woes. They have reportedly looked into acquiring help in the secondary and did sign Jaylon Smith this past week. Green Bay can't stop trying. Otherwise, the red-zone defense will undermine their season.
PB: The Packers offense got off to a bit of a sluggish start, but after three empty possessions to start the game for Green Bay, they had a chance to score on every drive the rest of the game except the end-of-half drive with just 36 seconds on the clock.
They put up 466 yards of offense on the No. 5 defense by DVOA this season, and they did it behind Davante Adams’ first 200-yard receiving game of his career, nearly 200 combined yards from A.J. Dillon and Aaron Jones, and Rodgers getting white hot in the middle of the game. They need to finish drives better as I noted above. Going 2-5 in the red zone with Rodgers and this crew won’t pass muster, but to be this production without three starting offensive linemen (including two of the best in the league) and the team’s No. 2 receiver is remarkable.
This offense isn’t clicking as it did in 2020 and I’ve made some jokes on Twitter about it looking like the 2019 team where Rodgers wanted everything to be a deep shot. On the other hand, their good plays are really good and it endures as a creative offense with a slew of playmakers.
I expect them to catch fire at some point, likely when the line gets back healthy, and that could be very soon.