CINCINNATI – Taking a closer look at the Green Bay Packers’ 34-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, a game in which the teams combined for eight turnovers and the kinds of scoring runs normally seen in basketball games:
Thumbs up: No one will be complaining this week that the bye is too early. Not with what happened Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Already without safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring), nickel cornerback Casey Hayward (hamstring), starting running back Eddie Lacy (concussion) and fullback John Kuhn (hamstring), the Packers lost tight end Jermichael Finley to a concussion, then running back James Starks to a knee injury and finally outside linebacker Clay Matthews to a hamstring injury.
In theory, the week off should be enough to get Burnett and Hayward, who’ve missed all three games, back for Oct. 5 against Detroit; while Lacy and Finley should be cleared from their concussions and Kuhn and Matthews’ hamstrings should be OK. The severity of the oft-injured Starks’ knee injury is unknown.
“I worked extremely hard this offseason just to be the best back I could be,” said a clearly frustrated Starks, who ran for 132 yards last week against Washington and had carried 14 times for 55 yards before his knee injury. “Coming in, I felt like I had a good camp and the last two games, starting to get carries, feeling real well and it was just a little freak accident, a you-never-know-what's-going-to-happen-type thing. You just get frustrated it a little bit.”
Matthews was more optimistic about his injury, despite an injury history that has cost him at least one game each season because of hamstring issues.
“I'll be good. I think today was more of a preventative measure than anything,” said Matthews, who missed four games last year with a hamstring injury. “I felt like I could go back out there, but we had to be smart with this, especially going into a bye week. I don't see myself missing any time. We've got Detroit coming back and I'll be out there.”
When asked if the bye week comes at a good time, McCarthy answered with more of a long-view perspective.
“I can’t even recall a bye week close to this early. I think we’d all like to play this week,” he said. “The schedule is set, you can’t change it. We have a process we’ll stick to. We’re 1-2, that’s where we are. We’ve lost two games, fourth quarter is an emphasis of ours. We had a lot of adversity today, and frankly it will be adversity we can learn from. I fully believe our football team will grow from this experience today, and we have to it. That’s what we’re in it for.”
Thumbs down: While they managed to recover from it, Jeremy Ross’ fumble on the ensuing kickoff after the Bengals opening-drive touchdown put the Packers in a deep, deep hole. Only the defense’s four forced turnovers in four possessions – and the hand the inept Bengals offense had in those turnovers – allowed them to overcome the mistake.
“I was 5 yards deep (in the end zone) and the wind started to pick up and the ball was kicked. It was kind of high, so I tried to run up on it, but it was just dropping,” Ross said. “I just tried to catch it before it hit, and it bounced off and they recovered. It’s just one of those things.”
Remarkably, McCarthy stuck with Ross and didn’t bench him for the gaffe.
“That’s what pregame is for. You go out there – I know (special teams coordinator) Shawn (Slocum) and I spent a lot of time, because when the wind gets to a certain level it’s a discussion that takes place that may affect some decisions that go into that,” McCarthy said. “Part of that is the returners. It’s just really unacceptable, the judgment on the ball. And it wasn’t just Jeremy, the bangers, the whole coordination of it wasn’t intact with the flight of the football.”
Play of the day: Johnathan Franklin may very well have been the hero Sunday. After Starks’ injury left the Packers with only Franklin at the running back position, he answered the bell in a big way, carrying 13 times for 103 yards – the Packers’ second straight game with a 100-yard rusher after going 44 straight games without one – and breaking loose for a 51-yard run, the Packers’ longest of the season. But it was his fourth-and-inches fumble as he tried to dive over the pile – forced by Michael Johnson, first recovered by Reggie Nelson and then, after Nelson fumbled, recovered and returned for the go-ahead touchdown by Terence Newman – that decided the game.
“I’ve just got to keep it high and tight. It’s not excuse for what I was doing or how I was doing it. It’s all about technique,” Franklin said. “It’s a big play, a big down, and I’ve got to make a play for my team regardless of whether it’s my first game or not. If they call on me, I’ve got to do my job.”
The Packers had initially converted a third-and-12 with an Aaron Rodgers completion to Randall Cobb, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis challenged the spot and won a reversal – he’d come into the game having won 18 of 32 challenges since 2008 and only four of 10 since 2011 – to set up fourth down with 4:23 to play. A first down might have sealed a 30-27 victory.
With the challenge, McCarthy acknowledged that he had plenty of time to decide what to do, and despite being without Lacy, Starks or Kuhn, he went with Franklin rather than a quarterback sneak with Rodgers or kicking a 48-yard field goal.
“It was an inches play. We had a couple things going on,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, I thought that we could convert it; that’s why we called the play. We didn’t get it done. That’s the profession of play-calling. When it works, it’s excellent execution by your players, and when it doesn’t, it’s the play-caller. You had confidence in Mason going in. We were inside the mark in the field goal. It had nothing to do with that. I just felt that we had a chance to convert and get another set of downs and particularly having their defense on the field for another long drive.
“With the challenge, obviously you had plenty of time to think about it. (I) probably overthought it because my initial thought was to kick the field goal. I’m paid to make those decisions. When they go wrong, I’m responsible.”
Player of the game: After coming into the game with just one takeaway in the first two weeks, the Packers forced four turnovers Sunday, and two of them were by Matthews, who after two pedestrian-by-his-standards performances, was tilting the field the Packers’ way when he got hurt. Matthews said he was injured while forcing his second fumble of the day but that he wasn’t sure how.
“Obviously that’s our goal each and every week is to force turnovers,” Matthews said. “That was key. I think we got up to 30 points, so yeah, that obviously is great, but we need to finish. There were some freak plays out there, some fluke plays but we obviously didn’t make the plays when we needed to and ultimately that cost us.”
Inside the game: McCarthy vowed at midweek that he wouldn’t put himself through what he did in 2011, when he went into a game at Kansas City with only two healthy running backs (Ryan Grant and Kuhn) and wound up in all kinds of play-calling trouble when Grant left the game temporarily with bruised ribs. And lo and behold, when Starks went down, the Packers had the same problem. Only this time, it got worse when Franklin went down during the final drive and the Packers resorted to playing Ross, a wide receiver who hadn’t played running back since high school.
Lacy and Kuhn worked out before the game for trainer Kurt Fielding and strength coach Mark Lovat, but both were inactive.
“We were right back there. I was right back there today,” McCarthy said of the Kansas City redux. “That’s what you try to avoid. You make decisions during the course of the week. The medical aspect of this business is difficult to assess, it’s difficult to judge, it’s difficult to prepare for. That’s the reality of it. Every team goes through it.
“We made a decision today with two running backs — a very conscious decision. We had a plan if whatever happened happened to us today, and that’s why Jeremy Ross was in there when Johnathan Franklin got hurt.”
Quote, unquote: “Offensively, it’s just really disappointing. We’ll work on things. It’s Week 3 but you’ve got to win these kind of games when you’re coming down the stretch and trying to make the playoffs.” – Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
In case you missed it:
> Of all the injuries that hit the Packers Sunday, the loss of Finley, who was off to a strong start with 11 receptions for 121 yards in the first two games, probably hurt the most. Finley had just been saying at midweek that he liked the way the offense was using short drag routes with him because it meant he didn’t have to risk “going down the seam and getting my head knocked off.” And then that’s exactly what happened when he took a blow to the head from safety George Iloka that did not draw a penalty. “That’s the challenge of our game. You have to be able to adjust on the sidelines,” McCarthy said. “Losing Jermichael early like that, he was a featured player today. So, you adjust.” The Packers went with Ryan Taylor and Andrew Quarless at tight end thereafter.
> Rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari has played well but made a crucial mistake on the Packers’ final play, a fourth-down incompletion that was tipped at the line of scrimmage by Michael Johnson when Bakhtiari failed to get him to the ground with a cut block. “I just didn't execute my football play the way it's supposed to be,” Bakhtiari said. “I cut him down really well when we started calling it, calling some of the cut plays. Then he started kind of reading it and on that last play he kept on going more inside and more inside and I wasn't able to get his hands down.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
There are no games scheduled for today.