Bengals Preview, Week Four: New England
The Cincinnati Bengals are feeling some new found love these days from just about everybody. Media pundits, players, and coaches and even the everyday Joe has something nice to say these days about the Men in Stripes.
Of course, it wasn't always like that. There is no need to delve into the darker eras of the team's history, for these are certainly happier days. Yet, just as it was important for them to ignore the scorn they received for years, they also must remain humble in the face of praise.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick called the Bengals the most complete team he has seen in a while and even the Andy Dalton/Marvin Lewis vitriol printed on a daily basis has either subsided or vanished altogether. Now with speedster Marvin Jones returning to the fold, plus the hopeful addition of Vontaze Burfict this week, this team on paper and on the field are a force to be reckoned with.
But what does the team think of itself?
“Being who we are, we're going to get everyone's best shot right now,” cornerback Adam Jones told Bengals media. “We just have to go in and play Bengals football and not try to play out of character and we will be alright.”
Sounds about right: confidence within themselves.
As for the game itself, the matchup seems a bit tricky. Reports of the death of Tom Brady's talent seem greatly exaggerated despite the pounding the whole team took last week to the Chiefs. It remains true that all good things eventually come to an end, but I have foolishly counted out the Brady-Belichick brain-trust in the past only to be mocked by my peers once they ended up in the AFC Championship game, yet again.
This time, though, it does admittedly feel different. In years past, Brady had been able to succeed with relatively no-name receivers with pinpoint passing accuracy and an full-proof game plan, but the question today is does he still have such a firm command of the game?
Against Kansas City it wasn't just Brady failing to live up to expectation and do his job, the whole team got out-muscled and pushed around for four quarters. The line couldn't pass-protect, or create running lanes. The receivers struggled to get open and no one tackled very well at all. The Chiefs got the ball quickly to the flats and dared New England to bring down their big tight end, Travis Kelce, which they were unable to do. Adding to the woes were two Chiefs running backs that varied in style, who rolled right through the Pats front seven, mostly on off-tackle runs.
The Bengals feature similar tailbacks that can smash it up the gut with rookie Jeremy Hill, or dance around in open space with Gio Bernard. If tight end Tyler Eifert were healthy, Cincinnati could mirror Kansas City's game plan and challenge the Pats to make open-field tackles. Backup Jermaine Gresham can be a load to bring down since he is built like a good-sized parking garage, but he has proven so careless while running with the football that it raises a red-flags when relying on someone who fumbles so often.
The Bengals receiving corps is better than that of the Chiefs, adding another dangerous wrinkle when forming a strategy to stop the potent offensive Bengals attack. A.J. Green remains one the of the elite players at his position, and Mohamed Sanu has proven to be immensely valuable to coordinator Hue Jackson in the team's first three games. Now Marvin Jones enters back into the scheme with his intense straight-line speed and his impressive powers of concentration to make the contested catch on high throws. If the New England secondary favors A.J. Green's side of the field, Jones could hurt the Patriots deep in one-on-one coverage. If they back up altogether, eliminating the big play but allowing the underneath passes, the Bengals can nickel and dime their way to a blowout, especially if New England replicates the same tackling performance they showed on Monday Night.
In short, there is no easy way to stop the Bengals offense. If Dalton and crew continue to be careful avoiding turnovers, careful avoiding penalties, and continue to spread the ball around to their stockpile of offensive weaponry, it becomes difficult to see them lose to just about anyone.
Conversely, the emphasis for the Bengals defense is also quality tackling, only they have done a tremendous job of that so far, especially with their corners. The Patriots have a lot of decent receivers, but no top-tier target that can do damage in a variety of ways. Specifically, New England has no real deep-threat that scares opposing defenses. Instead, they have stayed true to the short passing game, mostly out of the shotgun formation, which they had great success with a few years back with their two dynamic tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski has battled through a spate of injuries and remains a dangerous red-zone threat, (Hernandez killed a guy and remains in prison), but now they work the outside more than they used to. Julian Edelman is Brady's go-to target and is a tough and intense competitor, but he is not the burner needed to pass over the top of defenses. Additionally, Brady may not possess the deep-ball arm strength needed to burn defenses on long throws. I only saw one attempt last week and it fell to the turf for an incompletion.
The Pats running game was anemic at best last week as the Chiefs defense forced Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley to move laterally instead of vertically and limited them to small, insignificant gains. This was a result of a weak offensive line effort more than inadequate field vision from the back. The Bengals boast the league's best defense and are fearsome against the run. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, therefore, would be wise to load the box and dare Brady to beat them deep. If the Bengals tackle like they have all season, this will force the Patriots into minimal chances to score touchdowns on big plays.
With all of that said, though, it would be most surprising if New England doesn't make some rather dramatic scheme changes to avoid another lame showing like last week. Clearly, their approach failed miserably in KC, and this isn't some backward team that stubbornly sticks to its losing ways. The Patriots are famous for their adjustments and are more likely to employ wild and crazy play-calling before they roll over and die with the same tired and ineffective game plan.
Typically, the way this universe works, is that a high-riding Bengals team gets knocked down a peg from a perennial contender on national prime-time television. Typically, they are humbled with a tough loss in October that complicates their playoff seeding come January. Throughout the Marvin Lewis era, his team has often been solid, even very good, but never a powerhouse. This year, they appear better built than they ever have before—lock solid in every phase. Seeing is believing, though, and I've been tricked into this euphoric optimism in the past. Trends may be broken, but remain trends until they do.
Patriots 23, Bengals 17
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor
Photo via Bengals Facebook