Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews knocks the ball loose while tackling Cincinnati Bengals halfback BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the second quarter of Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The Packers' M.D. Jennings recovered the ball and scored a touchdown on the play. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
CINCINNATI — The Green Bay Packers were reminded Sunday of how difficult life can be when Clay Matthews isn’t on the field.
Through the first half of Sunday’s 34-30 loss to Cincinnati, the fifth-year outside linebacker could do no wrong, registering two tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles on back-to-back plays that led to Green Bay’s first 10 points in the second quarter.
After punching the ball out of the hands of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on a 4-yard sack midway through the second quarter, Matthews didn’t return to the field after suffering the latest flare-up in a long line of hamstring injuries dating to his rookie season in 2009.
The absence of the four-time Pro Bowler robbed the defense of one of the main reasons it forced Cincinnati into four consecutive turnovers, allowing the Packers to climb back into the game after spotting the Bengals 14 points early.
“It’s very frustrating, especially in the manner in which we lost and to be on the sideline and feel as if you could’ve impacted the game in a positive manner for your team,” Matthews said. “It’s obviously very difficult, but it’s part of the game. I don’t like it, but we’ll correct our mistakes, we’ll move forward.”
The defense held Cincinnati on its first two possessions after Matthews’ departure before the Bengals finally clawed back into the game after Dalton hit A.J. Green for an 18-yard touchdown over cornerback Sam Shields and then executing a back-breaking 95-yard drive in the fourth quarter that cut the Packers’ lead to 30-27 with 10:55 left.
Tramon Williams and Mike Daniels managed sacks of Dalton in the second half, but the defense didn’t have the same bite minus Matthews’ play-making. His replacements, Mike Neal and Nick Perry, combined for three tackles but no quarterback hurries.
“Obviously, in my opinion, he’s one of the best defensive players in the league,” Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “I still have faith in the guys who come in, but obviously when you lose a perennial all-star, it definitely doesn’t help you.”
A hamstring injury cost Matthews four games last year after he strained it in a game against Arizona before the Packers’ Week 10 bye. However, the four-time Pro Bowler claims that won’t be the case this time around.
It’s still worrisome for a team that already was playing without safety Morgan Burnett, cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Jarrett Bush, and fullback John Kuhn, who all missed Sunday’s game with hamstring ailments.
“I’ll be good. I think today was more of a preventive measure than anything,” Matthews said. “I felt like I could go back out there, but we have to be smart, especially going into a bye week. I don’t see myself missing any time. We have Detroit coming back, and I’ll be out there.”
The hot seat Jeremy Ross was sitting on before Sunday rose a few more degrees after he fumbled the kickoff on what would’ve been the Packers’ first offensive possession in the first quarter.
Lining up 5 yards deep in the end zone, Ross misjudged a Mike Nugent kickoff that fell near Packers’ 5-yard line, resulting in him dropping the ball. It was recovered by Cincinnati’s Taylor Mays at the 2.
The miscue was reminiscent of Ross’ muffed punt return at his team’s 9-yard line during last January’s NFC divisional playoff loss to San Francisco.
“It was frustrating,” Ross said. “It’s just moving forward. Thinking what I did and be like, ‘OK, my team still needs me.’ I can’t afford to stay and sulk about what happened. There was plenty of football left and my team needs me to stay focused.”
The Packers stuck with Ross the rest of the game on kickoffs, with him returning two kicks for 21 yards. He’s averaging only 12.5 yards per return this season, but made a heads-up decision in the third quarter when he fielded a Nugent kickoff near the sideline at the Green Bay 1 and placed his right foot out of bounds to draw the penalty for a kick out of bounds.
After Johnathan Franklin left with an injury on the Packers’ final drive in the fourth quarter, Ross also caught his first NFL pass on an 8-yard reception in the flat from Aaron Rodgers on third-and-8 for a new set of downs.
After allowing 718 passing yards in the first two weeks of the season, the Packers’ defense held the Bengals to 297 yards of total offense.
A part of that was some new installations to the team’s coverage unit with undrafted rookie Chris Banjo playing nearly the entire game at safety with M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian working in a platoon of sorts.
The Packers started in nickel with Tramon Williams and Shields lining up outside and rookie Micah Hyde in the slot before deciding to sub in Davon House and move Williams inside and not looking back.
The move seemed to help ignite their run of four straight takeaways. In the end, however, Jennings’ touchdown, Shields’ interception and A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones’ recoveries weren’t enough to sustain the victory.
“Sometimes games go like that,” said Shields, who played a role in limiting Green to four catches for 46 yards and a touchdown. “You have to keep fighting. That’s all we keep preaching. ... We’ll go in (Monday) and correct the things we have to correct on both sides.”
Banjo, who saw 29 defensive snaps last week against Washington, said he knew he was in for a heavier workload against the Bengals.
“I knew at the beginning of the week, so I just tried to prepare myself as much as I could,” said Banjo, who finished with two tackles. “Nothing is set in stone, especially a guy in my position, so I just tried to keep my mind clean and prepare myself.”
■ Andrew Quarless and Ryan Taylor were both in for busy days with Kuhn out and the Packers losing tight end Jermichael Finley to a concussion on their first offensive drive.
The incident occurred on a third-and-11 play during the Packers’ first series when Rodgers tried to thread a pass to Finley, who was met by a shoulder from Cincinnati safety George Iloka.
The play could have been flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver but went uncalled with Quarless and Taylor finishing the rest of the contest alternating between tight end and H-back and combining for five catches for 32 yards on eight targets.
■ Along with running back Eddie Lacy (concussion), Kuhn, Hayward, Bush and Burnett, the Packers’ other inactive players included rookie defensive lineman Josh Boyd and rookie offensive lineman Lane Taylor.
■ Packers rookie defensive lineman Datone Jones’ blocked extra point in the fourth quarter was the team’s first since Oct. 3, 2005 (Cullen Jenkins vs. Oakland).
— whodkiew@pressgazettemedia and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.