Dougherty: Packers find a way to win with help from defensive rookies
These are the games you have to win if you want to be in the hunt for home field in the NFL playoffs.
The Green Bay Packers were missing their best defensive player (Mike Daniels) and maybe their best pass rusher (Nick Perry). They also didn’t have their left tackle (David Bakhtiari) and one of their starting receivers (Randall Cobb).
So what? The Packers still have their share of offensive talent, starting with a premier quarterback. And they were playing at home against a Cincinnati Bengals team that had lost its first two games.
The name of the game on days like this is win. Call it an Al Davis game.
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It doesn’t matter how it looks or feels. So while there’s plenty to question and criticize, all that mattered was that Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy found a way to get to overtime and then win even though they and their team didn’t perform particularly well for much of this day.
“It’s early-season football,” McCarthy said. “You have to have those wins. You have to have those moments of adversity.”
The Packers will be in the same position with their quick turnaround to play Chicago on Thursday night. It’s unclear whether Bakhtiari (hamstring) has enough time in the short week to get back after missing two games. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga didn’t return Sunday after aggravating his ankle injury, so his status against the Bears is in question.
Same for Daniels (hip), Perry (broken hand) and Cobb (chest). But the Packers again will be at home, and again, and they’ll have a huge advantage at quarterback against a 1-2 team.
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They also will be another week into the process of identifying their best players on defense with the hope that it will pay dividends in December and January. Whether it was by necessity (an injury to starting cornerback Davon House) or not, coordinator Dom Capers unveiled a defensive personnel grouping that you have to assume will be his go-to this season.
After watching his defense get overrun in Atlanta last week for the second time in eight months, Capers absolutely had to get rookie safety Josh Jones on the field with rookie cornerback Kevin King. Capers did it by benching cornerback Quinten Rollins and replacing him in the slot with Jones.
So for most of this game, the Packers had four players from their deepest position, safety, playing together: Jones and Burnett in the front seven, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Marwin Evans deep. Now, the Bengals with Andy Dalton at quarterback are hardly the Falcons with Matt Ryan, but you have to say it worked.
Though Cincinnati scored touchdowns on two of its first three possessions, its offense ended up putting only 17 points on the board (the other touchdown was the second pick-six of Rodgers’ career). The Packers should never lose if they hold a team to 17 points or less.
And Jones was maybe their best playmaker on the day. There were growing pains for sure — he appeared to blow the coverage on Giovani Bernard’s easy six-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter — and surely will be more down the road. But Jones also made some big plays that got the defense off the field. He twice sacked Dalton on third downs, and in overtime he made the third-down, open-field tackle on tight end Tyler Kroft that gave the Packers the only stop they’d need in the extra period.
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“He definitely gives us more speed in there,” McCarthy said.
And a week after a respectable performance against Julio Jones, King hung in against another of the game’s great receivers, A.J. Green. For most of the day, King matched up with Green all over the field, and the receiver had his moments (10 catches for 111 yards). But he didn’t dominate, so that was a win for the Packers.
With defensive lineman Montravius Adams back from a broken foot and playing a handful of snaps in the dime, the Packers had their top three draft picks on the field at the same time. They badly need the talent upgrade and have to hope that playing them now pays off later this year.
McCarthy’s offense, in the meantime, is starting almost as slowly as it did last year. Playing without their left tackle for the entire game and their right tackle for much of the second half doesn’t help. But other good teams find ways to overcome, and if the Packers are going to be one, they must also.
The Packers clearly don’t have the quick-strike abilities of their 2011 team, but that’s the case with or without Cobb. And really, is Geronimo Allison that big a step down? The second-year pro is an inviting target because of his size (6-3), and as Cobb’s fill-in Sunday, he made a couple huge plays in the clutch.
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One, a diving catch on third down, kept the game-tying drive alive in the final three minutes. The other essentially won the game in overtime, the 72-yard catch on a vintage Rodgers free play that set up the game-winning field goal.
“I remember the first day I watched him in training camp (last year),” Rodgers said of Allison. “I said, ‘How did he not get drafted?”
The Packers flirted with defeat against an inferior opponent in this one, but then again, so did New England at home against Houston on Sunday in a 33-30 win that Tom Brady pulled out in the final minute.
“We’ve had kind of a rallying cry since the beginning of the season,” Rodgers said. “It’s just no excuses. The guys that are out there are expected to play and play well, and I’m expected to play and play well.”