By Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
CINCINNATI — Yes, Cedric Benson had fresher legs than almost everyone else on the field, and he probably was insanely motivated to show the Cincinnati Bengals that they made a mistake kissing him goodbye during the off-season.
Say whatever you want to minimize Benson’s debut with the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night. The fact of the matter is, it was an impressive showing by a good back, a performance that certainly wasn’t unexpected. At 29, Benson didn’t gain 1,067 yards last season by accident. He still can play.
Several of the dozen personnel men scouting the Packers’ 27-13 victory over the Bengals said without reservation that Benson makes one of the National Football League’s most prolific offenses even better.
“He made me a little nervous,” one scout said at halftime. “You think they’re struggling there (running back), and then this. I know he’s fresh, but he’s still a quality player.”
Benson returned to the field where he had three straight 1,000-yard seasons in his four years with the Bengals. Alex Green started, but Benson played extensively from the second series of the first quarter through the rest of the first half.
He rushed six times for 38 yards, an average of 6.3 that almost tripled the running backs’ cumulative average of 2.15 yards in the first two games.
“He looked good — really good,” another personnel man said. “Quick. He looks like he fits the offense well. Obviously, he’ll start. He’s much more consistent (than James Starks).”
The scout went so far as to say Benson had a legitimate chance to be the Packers’ best back since 2006, which was Ahman Green’ last productive season.
“He’s always been talented,” a third scout said. “Experienced. He’s been through it. And, really, he’s almost always been healthy.”
Of course, Benson’s contributions paled in comparison to the passing game. Aaron Rodgers and his receivers weren’t overly sharp, but he scrambled six times for 52 yards, including touchdowns runs of 12 and 5 yards. His runs accounted for five first downs.
“He looks like the MVP,” said one scout. “He looked the way I expected him to look. I don’t know if it matters who’s out there. Those receivers just go in and out.”
The Packers played a third straight game without tight end Jermichael Finley, who left the team early Thursday to be with his wife and newborn son.
In all, they played without 15 players (four starters) because of injury, whereas the Bengals were without 16 players, including five starters.
A crowd of about 40,000 watched on a beautiful night at the 65,515-seat facility.
After Green carried twice for 3 yards in the first series, coach Mike McCarthy used Benson for most of the first half, although John Kuhn replaced him on most third downs.
“He’s been kind of an average receiver,” one scout said, referring to Benson. “He’s not that true third-down back. He can protect a little bit, but he hasn’t had to do it that much.”
The Packers played the majority of the first half without huddling, using three wide receivers and a motioning a tight end all around the formation.
Rodgers marched behind the line barking commands and looking for the Bengals’ defense to tip its hand. His passer rating of 57.8 wasn’t much higher than his 49.9 mark in the first two games, but the Bengals covered well and his receivers had trouble getting free.
“They spread you out so well,” one personnel man said. “They are very efficient with the no-huddle. Same system. Same players. They’re hitting on all cylinders.
“Aaron Rodgers is phenomenal. You can’t let him get on the perimeter on those bootlegs.”
Benson seemed perfectly at home in shotgun formation. On his first carry, a play designed to go outside the right guard, Benson read the back side of the defense, stuck his foot in the ground quickly and burst through left guard for 8 yards.
In the second quarter, Benson made the same cut on what seemed to be the exact same play and found room on the back side for 8 more.
He also had a 9-yard rush in which he bounced off first contact just beyond the line of scrimmage, then made a tackler miss as he scooted ahead for 11 against a blitz.
Why did Benson remain unemployed from early March until a week ago? His checkered past off the field was one factor, according to a scout. So is his reputation for being an early-down back only.
“When you’re a running back you get categorized,” one scout said, mentioning former Packer Ryan Grant. “You’ll see a lot of guys start signing now.
“You never knew what they (the Packers) could do if they could run the ball. Either way, the first thing they’re going to do is throw. The back (Benson) is an added bonus.”
On defense, the Packers’ starters played much of the first half. They appeared to be active, pressured quarterback Andy Dalton hard and held the Bengals to just 87 yards in 29 plays (3.0 average).
“Early on they stopped the run pretty good,” one scout said. “It will depend on that defense. They gave up chunks of yards last year. They looked like contenders tonight.”
Anthony Levine, a safety in his Packers’ third training camp, lined up next to Morgan Burnett in the nickel defense ahead of M.D. Jennings.
The Packers improved to 1-2, and the Bengals slipped to 2-1. McCarthy has won five in a row in the third exhibition game of the summer, which is considered to be the most significant exhibition game.
If McCarthy does play Rodgers and other key players next Thursday night against Kansas City, it wouldn’t be for long.