NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Football is a game of capitalizing on mistakes. And against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 5, the New England Patriots were caught on the wrong side of that ledger, falling short in a 13-6 rain-soaked struggle at Paul Brown Stadium.
Neither side played a particularly clean game Sunday afternoon. But ultimately, both parties had chances to win. It was about which team executed upon those chances to create a turning point.
Up just a field goal with one minute to play in the third quarter, the Bengals did so.
At that juncture, Cincinnati’s offense was battling a 3rd-and-15 from its own two-yard line. New England’s defense found itself with a golden opportunity to force an end-zone punt and get the ball back before the fourth frame.
A quick snap by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton changed that. The Patriots were not ready, and in turn, Cincinnati wide receiver Marvin Jones had himself a 28-yard reception down the left sideline.
Jones’ reception in soft zone coverage delivered the Bengals a fresh set of downs and the Patriots a back-breaking letdown.
“They took a little while to get lined up. We just got set, they weren’t ready, so we snapped it and hit the big play,” Dalton told Bengals.com post-game. “That’s all it really came down to.”
It came down to one defensive lapse proliferating another.
With 32 seconds remaining in the quarter and a 1st-and-10 on the docket, the Bengals had new life. The offense left the huddle and aligned in a bunched “11” personnel, with tight end Jermaine Gresham off the strong side of the line and rookie running back Giovani Bernard six yards deep in the backfield. The tight-knit grouping continued outward, shipping wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Jones right, as well as 2009 Patriots third-round draft pick Brandon Tate left.
New England countered with a 4-2 nickel look, sticking with middle linebacker Brandon Spikes to enforce the run next to weak-side linebacker Jerod Mayo, all while cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington remained in the fold to enforce the pass.
It was a corresponding move that kept the defense light yet potentially vulnerable if a convoy of blockers were to swing out in front of the run. And that’s what Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had hoped for.
The play call was a halfback crack toss to the right. Gresham and right tackle Andre Smith were prepped to pull towards the nearside numbers. To their left, the rest of the line was ready to follow. It was an orchestration that, if implemented correctly, would clear the muscle of the defensive front out of the way.
Bernard waited patiently behind Dalton, vying for more than the 13 yards of real estate he accumulated on his first six carries.
As Dalton handled the snap at the line, he planted his right foot in the direction of Cincinnati’s second-round draft choice and led him with an underhand pitch. The back harnessed the ball ran with composure, knowing full well that Gresham, Smith, right guard Kevin Zeitler, center Kyle Cook and left guard Clint Boling would venture out in a convoy with him.
On the other side of the ball, right defensive end Chandler Jones arced around the pull of the left tackle, running upright in what appeared to be backside contain. However to his left, undrafted defensive tackles Joe Vellano, Chris Jones and veteran left defensive end Rob Ninkovich encountered a logjam.
Those factors made it all the more vital for Mayo and Spikes to anticipate the gaps behind the aid of left cornerback Aqib Talib and nickelback Kyle Arrington, who were vying to cut the play off before it hit the flat.
When Bernard crept outside the hashes, he drew Spikes – who lowered a shoulder on Smith – outside as well. Spikes took one blocker out of the play, but he also took himself out of the play.
New England had four defenders in the immediate vicinity untouched after the initial blocks transpired. That said, left tackle Andrew Whitworth was retreating with Mayo in his sights. Zeitler had Ninkovich in his sights past Jones on the interior. And Cook had New England’s defensive back help in his sights.
It would be up to Bernard to steer clear of the road grading.
He did. And by the time he crossed the line of scrimmage, only four Patriots remained standing in the close quarters. Some of which had more balance to make a stop than others.
Firstly, there was the edge-rushing Jones, who was slow to react to the unblocked runway ahead of him. Secondly, there was Mayo, who was thrust into the action off-kilter. Thirdly, there was the inside Jones, who was running perpendicular to the ball-carrier. And fourthly, there was Talib, who was bent back to the trenches and guarded by the tight end.
The 21-year-old Bernard displayed proficient vision, diagnosing the best route through the rubble of black, orange, white and blue.
Bernard leaned through the opening made by Zeitler and Cook. He slipped through the outstretched arm of Mayo and right behind the 6’2”, 306-pound Jones.
The North Carolina product burst downfield.
Bernard scampered low behind Sanu’s lead block on his way to optimum speed. It became a two-on-three fast break into New England territory.
Safety Devin McCourty stood against the grain. Dennard surged from across the field. And the second-year Jones trailed.
The three-man recovery wasn’t enough to prevent damage, though. The damage had already been done. Passing the 40, the 50 and the other 45 before Dennard and McCourty tracked him down for the tackle, Bernard’s escape picked up where Jones’ sideline reception left off.
Bernard’s spark sent the Patriots reeling into the fourth quarter. And 10 plays later, with 9:27 left in the contest, a one-yard rush by ex-Patriot tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis etched the Bengals a 13-3 advantage.
The Patriots kicked a field goal on the next series to make it a one-touchdown deficit, but nothing more came of the Oct. 6 deadlock in Ohio. An interception put the finishing touches on the New England’s final drive. The undefeated Patriots were undefeated no more.
And Bernard’s demoralizing 28-yard rush was a catalyst in making it happen.