NEPD Staff Writer: Ken Vetrano
The New England Patriots played with emotion and a sense of urgency Sunday night as they beat the Cincinnati Bengals 43-17. Players stepped up and rallied around quarterback Tom Brady. There were a number of areas I could have chose to highlight from this victory. Kyle Arrington for instance played aggressively – making plays on defense and returning a fumble for a touchdown on special teams. Stephen Gostkowski continued to be one the most steadfast kickers in the league, and Darrelle Revis virtually shut down AJ Green for an entire half.
Below are just a few of the bright spots I chose to examine from last night, as well as some areas where New England needs to pick up the slack if they hope to contend later this fall when their schedule beefs up.
Running Game: Shane Vereen was hitting the accelerator after making his first move, and cutting up field quickly. All too often Vereen gets cute, abusing his ability to move laterally. Against Cincinnati, he took the open lanes presented to him and burst through holes. He averaged 10 yards per carry, and was a tremendous compliment to Stevan Ridley. His best play came in the third quarter on a 3rd and 16 after a Brian Stork holding penalty backed the offense up. The Patriots ran a draw to Vereen who shot up the middle for a 16-yard 1st down. The draw used to be a staple of New England’s offense – made famous by Kevin Faulk – if they can run that play with any consistency, it’s a great escape plan to have on third down.
Setting the tempo with Vereen was Stevan Ridley, who ran with authority and purpose. The problem with Ridley in the past was his violent running style, and tendency to get lazy with ball control. He typically leads with his head and doesn’t square his shoulders enough when making contact. Against Cincy, Ridley ran physically and intelligently. It was a workhorse like performance that helped New England establish an effective play action, and exploit seams down the middle with Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright. He also notched his longest carry ever with a 43-yard run down the sideline. If Ridley is patient, and follows his blocks, opportunities will be there for him to break off big plays.
Tight Ends: The 2-TE offense was back in effect. Wright found separation and took advantage of open gaps in the middle. He has a long stride that takes a few seconds to get going, but has decent speed to pick up some extra change after the catch. His 17 yard touchdown showcased how Brady can take advantage of Wright’s size on top of coverage. He might not be as shifty or explosive as the old #81, but Wright has enough skill to be a productive “F-type” TE for this offense.
It looks like Rob Gronkowski’s feet have finally gotten back under him. He was seeking contact and gaining yards after collision. At times he still doesn’t look %100, but his speed and balance are improving with every rep. The Bengals treated him with softer coverage than they should have, and Gronk ate them up. His motor seemed to have extra fuel in the tank as the game progressed – as cardio seemed to be an issue with him early on this year. Which is to be expected from a player returning to live action after being shelved so long. If Wright starts to command added attention, that should only open things up for Gronk, and vice versa.
Offensive Line: They played together, got up field fast with blocks and became bullies inside the trenches. Dan Connolly really has had a nice start to 2014, and the rest of the line seemed to catch up Sunday night. Outside of a dumb holding penalty that Vereen eventually bailed him out off, Stork looked good at center. There still seems to be a bit of a rotation going on at right tackle, but overall things are starting to settle down for them. Tom Brady had all day to throw, and was able to read through his progressions while sitting in the pocket. By no means is the line completely fixed, but at least New England has a foundation to work with now. What seemed like a never ending game of musical chairs appears to be over. They went back to the basics concentrating on fundamentals and execution. Moving ahead, Brady can focus on other aspects of the offense, and Josh McDaniels can slowly start dialing up longer range passes.
Pass Rush: We haven’t seen much from New England’s pass rush outside of the Viking’s game. A lot of this has to do with scheme, and not attacking on a regular basis. However, the Patriots’ rushers must start creating their own success. Few players are winning one on one battles. Chandler Jones needs to stop overusing his bull rush, and incorporate more variations of that swim move he has found success with previously. He isn’t the strongest defensive end, but his length should make him a mismatch versus the majority of offensive lineman. Rob Ninkovich has never been the most athletic DE, and depends heavily on his motor and instincts to make plays. I’m not sure what’s happened to him this season. Casey Walker flashed when he penetrated the backfield and tackled Jeremy Hill for a four-yard loss, but outside of that and Chris Jones’ 4th quarter sack, there wasn’t much to get excited about. There’s nothing wrong with this defense being built around their secondary. Especially considering the pieces they’ve assembled back there, but at some point the front seven has to pull their own weight. Hopefully Dominique Easley will avoid missing significant time and become an asset on third down. Dont’a Hightower getting healthy should help them out as well down the line.
Secondary Depth: Heading into the season this was one of the Patriots strengths, and still could be. But when Darrelle Revis and Devin McCoutry left the game last night, fans realized just how impactful they are on defense. Mohamed Sanu flew by Alfonzo Dennard for an easy 37 yard touchdown shortly after McCourty was sidelined with a rib injury. Whether it was miscommunication – Dennard reacted as if he expected help over the top – or just blown coverage, that’s a play McCoutry doesn’t let get past him. Later in the third quarter, Andy Dalton immediately targeted Logan Ryan the moment Revis left the game, and A.J. Green cashed in with a 17 yard touchdown. The secondary does have talent behind their stars, but players like Ryan, Dennard and Duron Harmon excel at certain roles. Take them out of those roles and things start to break down. It looks like the Patriots dodged a bullet with Revis and McCourty, as Revis returned to the game and initial x-rays were negative for McCourty. Next week the Patriots should get Brandon Browner back, which will allow Bill Belichick to slot everyone where they perform best.
Red Zone Offense: Some might call this nit picking after Sunday night, but one of New England’s worst flaws last season that has bled over to 2014 is their red area offense. The offense should have done a lot more damage late in the game, and if it wasn’t for Kyle Arrington’s fumble return for a touchdown, the Bengals would’ve had a realistic chance to come back in the fourth quarter. Three fourth quarter field goals isn’t going to get the job done against Denver or even San Diego. Getting Wright involved in the Red Zone going forward could be part of the solution. Running fades with Gronk and Wright would give Brady a wider catch radius to work with inside congested space. Dumb penalties and questionable refereeing also didn’t help the cause.