NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
One week after narrowly preventing the Atlanta Falcons from staging a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback, the New England Patriots will face another challenge in the 2-2 Cincinnati Bengals, who are coming off of a road loss at Cleveland but have won both of their home games this season, contests against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers. The Bengals feature one of the league’s top wide receivers in A.J. Green and massive, highly effective offensive and defensive lines. Read on for ten keys to this week’s matchup, the first Patriots-Bengals game since 2010.
1. What kind of offensive and defensive approaches will Cincinnati take in the game?
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick mentioned this week that the team’s upcoming matchup against the Bengals had been difficult to prepare for given the fact that the two teams had not met since 2010, when circumstances were vastly different, with Cincinnati starting Carson Palmer at quarterback, Cedric Benson in the backfield, and the duo of Chad Johnson and Terrelle Owens at wide receiver, while New England’s starting tailback was Fred Taylor and the team’s passing attack was led by Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Tate, the last of whom now plays for the Bengals.
However, here’s what we know at this point: the Bengals have transitioned from an emphasis on three-wide formations last season to lots of “12” personnel this season, bringing rookie first-round pick Tyler Eifert onto the field at the expense of a third receiver. They are a power rushing team which rotates two running backs and begins drives with a rushing attempt more often than not; at times, they will bring in an additional offensive lineman to bolster their effectiveness, as none of their tight ends are considered dominant blockers. In the passing game, Andy Dalton looks for A.J. Green consistently and has struggled when Green has been limited.
Defensively, they line up in a base 4-3 and their sub package almost equally, with a slight advantage given to the sub package. Because the team has a deep, outstanding stable of defensive linemen, the Bengals typically rush four despite a linebacker corps which would be more at home in a 3-4 defense; that approach led to a 50-sack 2012 campaign, although the team is on pace for 36 this season. In the secondary, Cincinnati prefers to leave their cornerbacks on sides of the field rather than moving them around to account for particular receivers, potentially allowing the Patriots to choose their preferred matchups.
2. Will New England’s interior offensive line be able to limit disruptions from Geno Atkins?
Fourth-year under tackle Geno Atkins has quickly developed into one of the most feared defenders in the league, a player who should draw extra attention from New England’s interior offensive line on a consistent basis. Atkins entered the league as a fourth-round pick in 2010, excelling over 356 defensive snaps by recording three sacks, with ProFootballFocus crediting him with seven quarterback hits and nineteen pressures. By 2011, Atkins had become a full-time starter, totaling 7.5 sacks on the year and adding sixteen hits and 28 pressures. His 12.5-sack, thirteen-hit, 49-pressure 2012 season is considered among the most dominant campaigns by an under tackle in recent memory, with a vastly higher combined total than any other defensive tackle in the league; the season was also notable for Atkins’ outstanding run defense; in September, Atkins was rewarded with a five-year, $55 million extension.
Thus far in 2013, Atkins has been slightly less effective against the run but remains among the most dangerous interior pass rushers in the league, with 2.5 sacks, three hits, and ten pressures through four games. Atkins will likely be lined up against struggling starters Ryan Wendell (center) and Dan Connolly (right guard) for much of the game, meaning the Patriots will likely have to double-team him more often than not to prevent Atkins from knifing into the backfield and causing chaos for New England’s offense.
The Patriots should scheme to eliminate Atkins from the game in much the same way they will be required to prevent A.J. Green from emerging. Fortunately, left guard Logan Mankins, who has been enjoying something of a career renaissance in 2013, should be able to handle struggling Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko by himself. Cincinnati also possesses a pair of interesting second-year reserves at the position in Devon Still (second round) and Brandon Thompson (third round), both players having been considered potential Patriots draft picks in 2012.
3. Can Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer protect the edge versus oversized rushers?
This past March, the Cincinnati Bengals used their franchise tag on 6’7”, 270-pound right end Michael Johnson following his 11.5-sack campaign, agreeing to pay him a fully-guaranteed one-year, $11.2 million contract, then signed 6’6”, 280-pound left end Carlos Dunlap to a six-year, $40 million contract extension in July which featured $11.7 million in guaranteed money. The two form one of the most intimidating duos in the league, with both players excelling against the run and doubling as reasonably effective pass rushers.
However, it’s possible that the Patriots will only see Dunlap this week, as Johnson missed practice all week with a concussion and is currently listed as questionable; it’s worth mentioning, though, that Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer indicated his confidence in Johnson’s eventual readiness for the game. Should Johnson ultimately take the field as Zimmer expects, he would be lined up opposite Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, with right tackle Sebastian Vollmer responsible for Dunlap in what would be some of the most interesting individual matchups of the game.
Because, as outlined before, New England will likely be forced to devote extra attention to Geno Atkins inside, both Solder and Vollmer will likely be asked to go it alone to begin the game, with their early success or failure dictating whether or not the Patriots are eventually forced to retain tight ends or backs for chip blocks. Thus far, however, both players have been excellent in pass protection, with neither allowing a quarterback sack or hit this season. If Johnson is unable to play, Cincinnati will likely start defensive end Wallace Gilberry on the right side, a player who quietly assembled a 6.5-sack season last year and possesses the versatility to slide inside on obvious passing downs.
4. What does Stevan Ridley’s absence mean for New England’s running back rotation?
After missing practice for the entire week, Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was preemptively ruled out for today’s game at Cincinnati, likely creating a two-back rotation of LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden. Of the two aforementioned players, Bolden has been the more effective thus far, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt on the ground and contributing six catches as a receiver as well, but has seen a limited workload, with only fifteen touches on the season.
The primary culprit for this strange combination of facts, aside from the team’s overall depth at running back, is a knee injury which has limited his ability to practice with the team and consequently created additional opportunities for Blount, who is thus far averaging a deceptive 4.6 yards per attempt which has been inflated by a pair of big runs totaling 23 yards (versus Tampa Bay) and 47 yards (at Atlanta.) The other 32 carries Blount has taken thus far on the season have gone for an average of 2.65 yards per attempt, that erratic production leading to a 41% success rate, a mark which ranks 27th out of 36 qualifying backs. To compound matters, Blount is not a receiving threat out of the backfield, having caught just 21 career passes, none of which came with the Patriots.
It’s possible that Leon Washington, who has appeared for only fourteen offensive snaps this season, may finally see an expanded role. Cincinnati ranks twelfth against the run, so the Patriots probably shouldn’t expect to have much success on the ground; however, their best chance at grinding out yards will likely be to rush off of the left end or behind left tackle Nate Solder, areas where the Bengals rank 19th and 22nd in Adjusted Line Yardage, respectively, compared to twelfth in the mid/guard, right tackle, and right end areas.
5. Can Cincinnati’s underwhelming linebacker corps avoid being exploited with speed?
Despite the recognizable names in their linebacker corps, the Bengals currently field a linebacker corps which it may be possible for New England to exploit with speed. The best player Cincinnati fields at the position is probably strongside linebacker James Harrison, but he has been limited to more of a reserve role this season, playing a season-high 44/73 defensive snaps last week but appearing for a total of nineteen snaps over the previous two weeks combined. At 35, Harrison is no longer the feared pass rusher he was during his prime, but remains an effective run defender.
On the weakside, Cincinnati starts Vontaze Burfict, a divisive prospect in last year’s draft who ultimately went undrafted due to a combination of poor workouts, poor physical conditioning, and character concerns. Burfict has played all but four snaps on the season and been reasonably effective, but it’s possible that the Patriots can take advantage of his overagressiveness and lack of athleticism, the former Arizona State standout timing a 5.00 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and subsequently submitting terrible times in the short shuttle (4.56 seconds) and three-cone drill (7.51) at his pro day.
Rey Maualuga occupies the middle linebacker position and is consistently listed among the worst starters in the league at his position, with particularly egregious pass coverage skills. Flooding the middle of the field with receiving options could force one of these players into man coverage duty.
6. Do the Bengals possess the defensive back depth to stop New England’s passing game?
New England may have caught a break this week, as Leon Hall, Cincinnati’s top cornerback, missed last week’s loss at Cleveland with a hamstring injury and is listed as doubtful for this week’s game. Opposing quarterbacks had targeted Hall 29 times on the season, completing fourteen of those passes for 134 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, good for a quarterback rating of 58.7. Should Hall be listed among Cincinnati’s inactives once again, look for Terence Newman to start at left cornerback and Adam Jones to start on the right side.
Even without Hall, Cincinnati nevertheless possesses an adequate top option in Newman, who is still producing despite being 35 years old (18/28, 218 yards, one interception on passing in his direction.) However, Jones has been more erratic thus far, with completions on 17/23 passes in his direction for a total of 278 yards. In three of four games this year, he has allowed a completion of 30 yards or more after allowing just one such pass over the entirety of the 2012 season.
When a fifth player came onto the field last week, third safety Chris Crocker (24 snaps) was seen more frequently than Ghee (23.) Ghee, a 2010 third-round pick, does not have much defensive experience, the 23 snaps he took last week representing a bigger defensive workload than he saw over the first three seasons of his career combined. He may not see any additional snaps this week either, as he is listed as doubtful with a thigh injury. The only other cornerback who has taken defensive snaps for Cincinnati this year is Dre Kirkpatrick (two), who has a hamstring injury of his own and is listed as questionable.
7. Without Vince Wilfork, how will New England’s defensive line fare against the run?
The NFL season is only four weeks old, but it already appears as though Bengals rookie second-round pick Giovani Bernard, the first running back selected in this year’s class, has wrested control of the team’s starting job from former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis. After appearing in more of a rotational role over the first three weeks of the season, Bernard took 50/68 snaps last week at Cleveland and touched the ball sixteen times for 75 yards, including making six catches. While Green-Ellis has carried the ball more to this point (with 52 carries as opposed to Bernard’s 32), the two players have similar snap counts, with Bernard holding a slight 131-127 edge.
However, the difference between the two backs in terms of effectiveness has already become apparent, with Bernard averaging 4.6 yards per attempt to Green-Ellis’ 2.7, that disparity resulting in Bernard’s place as the team’s leading rusher thus far this year. Additionally, Bernard has been successful on 72% of his rushing attempts this season according to Football Outsiders, the highest percentage in the league among qualifying runners; by comparison, Green-Ellis has been successful on 48% of his attempts, eleventh in the league. New England should see both players on Sunday, and while Green-Ellis’ ability to carry the ball up the middle for consistent gains may create problems for a defense which recently lost Vince Wilfork, Bernard is the more explosive, dangerous of the two backs, with a well-rounded skillset which includes escalating production as a receiver out of the backfield.
Cincinnati ranks first in the league in Adjusted Line Yardage on runs up the middle according to Football Outsiders, with an average of 4.85 yards per carry; the Patriots are 29th in the league against those same attempts, allowing an average of 4.47 yards per carry which will likely increase without Wilfork. 74% of opposing rushes have gone in that direction against New England, while Cincinnati runs that way on 61% of their carries. ESPN’s Trey Wingo recently mentioned that with Vince Wilfork on the field the Patriots have limited opponents to 4.1 yards per carry since 2009, good for ninth in the league, but ranks last with a 5.0 average without the cornerstone of their defense.
8. Can the Patriots get past the Bengals’ excellent offensive tackles and create pressure?
When given time to throw, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been reasonably effective this season, completing 70.2% of his passes and averaging 7.8 yards per attempt in a clean pocket. However, Dalton’s statistics under pressure are considerably worse, with a 33.3% completion percentage, 2.3 yards per attempt, and a 26.9 quarterback rating.
Although there’s no sure way to create pressure, especially against a talented offensive line, Dalton has struggled against the blitz more than the average quarterback since 2012, his completion percentage dropping by 10.5% against five or more rushers that season versus his percentage against four or fewer rushers, and by 4.9% this season. Additionally, Dalton is sacked with much greater frequency versus the blitz, with five of his seven sacks this year coming on the 58 blitzes he’s faced and 26 of his 48 sacks last season coming on 207 blitzes out of 628 total dropbacks.
Another flaw of Dalton’s is that he is notoriously averse to throwing passes away, doing so just thirteen times last season and twice in 2013. Because the Patriots cannot count on getting consistent pressure by matching up defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on offensive tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, respectively, they will likely be forced to incorporate some creative blitzes into their repertoire.
Dalton is surprisingly ineffective at throwing over the short middle of the field, with five touchdowns and seven interceptions on throws in that area over 2012 and 2013 combined, so it’s preferable that the pressure come from New England’s linebackers in that area. Bengals offensive guards Clint Boling (left) and Kevin Zeitler (right) are also among the best in the league at their respective positions, with starting center Kyle Cook being the weakest member of Cincinnati’s unit.
9. Can Aqib Talib build on last week’s performance with another versus A.J. Green?
Since entering the league via the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green has demanded attention from opposing defenses, catching 70/123 targets in his rookie year for 1,104 yard and seven touchdowns, then improving further in 2012, a season in which he caught 97/158 passes thrown his way for 1,350 yards and eleven touchdowns.
As Cincinnati’s most dangerous offensive weapon, it will be up for Bill Belichick and the Patriots to remove him from the game via the type of clever gameplanning that frustrated Julio Jones for much of Sunday’s win at Atlanta. New England proved two important things last Sunday versus Jones: first, that Aqib Talib can be counted on to provide reliable man coverage, albeit with regular safety help, and second, that the disparity between Talib’s efforts to cover Jones and Dennard’s attempts is notable enough to cover Green with Talib for the entire game. Green catches the vast majority of his passes on throws to Andy Dalton’s right, so Talib will likely not be required to follow him across the field on too many different occasions.
That would allow Dennard to use his physicality against Mohamed Sanu, a Rutgers product who was drafted in the third round last season and who has thus far averaged just 9.1 yards per catch but has rewarded the Bengals with a reception on 69.6%, or sixteen, of the twenty-three attempts thrown his way. It’s possible that Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington will be less visible than usual, as third receiver Marvin Jones has been used sparingly this season.
10. Will Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert be able to exploit the defense like Tony Gonzalez did?
Because the Patriots were so effective in limiting Julio Jones from taking over last week, the Falcons were forced to rely on the 37 year-old Tony Gonzalez, who proved up to the task by catching twelve of fourteen targets for 149 yards and two touchdowns, eventually drawing simultaneous press coverage from two defenders in order to prevent him from being able to run a route in the game’s closing seconds. Gonzalez caught passes against each of the six Patriots responsible for covering him on his targets, with New England’s first strategy being to cover him with a combination of strongside linebacker Dont’a Hightower (3/3, 24 yards) and strong safety Steve Gregory (3/4, 33 yards, TD), and their second option being to cover him with rookie third-round pick Logan Ryan, a bigger, more physical cornerback than most who nonetheless proved helpless against the future Hall-of-Famer, allowing 3/3 passing for 42 yards and Gonzalez’s second touchdown.
Unfortunately for New England, Cincinnati has a pair of receiving options at tight end which could cause some problems: former first-round picks Jermaine Gresham (2010) and Tyler Eifert (2013.) Gresham is 6’5” and Eifert is 6’6”, meaning that the Patriots will likely be forced to use bigger players such as Hightower in coverage more often than is desirable. This week’s contest may also create additional opportunities for rookie second-round pick Jamie Collins, who has appealing length and athleticism.
Gresham (254 snaps) has played slightly more than Eifert (168) at this point. Both have been high-percentage receivers, with Gresham catching 18/23 targets on the year (78.3%) and Eifert bringing in 12/16 throws in his direction. These two players will receive plenty of attention from Dalton this afternoon.
Final Prediction: Patriots 27, Bengals 20