GREEN BAY—Clay Matthews wasn’t about to knock Andy Dalton, but he confessed it’s a welcome change of pace to face a traditional pocket passer this week.
“It allows us to be pass rushers a little bit more,” said Matthews, comparing the approach against Dalton, the Cincinnati quarterback, versus San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Washington’s Robert Griffin III the first two games.
“We can’t ever get too crazy out there and lose our distribution in regards to our rush lanes, but it brings a smile to my face.”
Matthews was also quick to point out, however, that “to really pin our ears back and get after the quarterback,” it starts with stopping the run, and that means getting a handle on Cincinnati’s two-headed ground attack that features power back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the smaller but cat-quick Giovani Bernard.
Through two games, the veteran Green-Ellis has three times as many carries as Bernard, but the 5-foot-9, 208-pound rookie from North Carolina – who was the first running back taken in last April’s draft, with the 37th overall pick in the second round – has been the more explosive player.
He’s averaging five yards per rush (12 carries, 60 yards) and his quickness jumped off the film last Monday against Pittsburgh when he took a short dump-off pass and raced 27 yards for a touchdown.
“When he comes in, it’s like he’s on a different speed than anybody else on the field. He’s like a bigger Sproles,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said, referring to the New Orleans dynamo who gives up three inches and 18 pounds to Bernard.
“Anytime you get two different looks, two different backs, it’s two different styles. One of them is more of a jump-cut, then bounce to the outside; the other one is downhill.”
The changes can be tough to adjust to series to series, because a true thunder-lightning combination is rare.
“Yeah, but we’ve faced ‘AP’ and he’s pretty much all of those – scat back, power back,” Pickett said of division rival Adrian Peterson from Minnesota. “There’s nothing we haven’t seen.”
Having regularly faced big receivers in the NFC North like Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall should help against Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, who’s 6-4.
Green is Dalton’s go-to guy, with 15 catches for 203 yards and two TDs through two games, picking up where he left off following a monster 2012 (97 rec., 1,350 yards, 11 TDs).
“A.J. has the ability to not only do it in the controlled passing game, but go out and make the big catch in the vertical passing game,” Mike McCarthy said. “Like anything, not to be cliché, it’s going to come down to fundamentals. Anytime you have a premier perimeter player, whether it’s a running back to a wide receiver or tight end, we have to make sure we’re playing to our leverage, playing to our help.”
Thus far in 2013, the Packers haven’t matched a particular cover man on the opponent’s top wide receiver, preferring to have their corners stay on certain sides of the field. Whether or not the performances turned in by San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin (13 catches, 208 yards, 1 TD) and Washington’s Pierre Garcon (8-143-1) in the first two weeks will alter Green Bay’s approach against Green remains to be seen.
“In all reality, he’s going to catch balls,” cornerback Sam Shields said. “That’s going to happen. You have to get him down when he does catch the ball and just go on to the next play.”
Cincinnati also boasts a productive tight end tandem in Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert, who have combined for 19 catches and 214 yards through two games, but 61 of those yards came from Eifert on one play when the Steelers left him uncovered.
Eifert didn’t even score on the play, though, while Green would still be running if given that much room to run. He’s the home-run threat, and while steady pressure up front from Matthews and Co. will certainly help, the cover guys know it’s on them to keep Green in check.
“He has it all,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “He can run routes, he has the speed, he has the ball skills. Shoot, every play is going to be a tough matchup for anyone who’s on him.
“But at the same time, we have confidence we can go out and get the job done. Hopefully we go out there and show it.” Additional coverage - Sept. 19