|AJ Green is one of the top receivers the Patriots will face this season|
Bengals offense vs Patriots defense
A prolific Bengals offense took plenty of offseason hits that have factored into their disappointing start to the season. They lost their number two and three receivers from a year ago to free agency, as Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu both parlayed their success in Cincinnati into larger roles and bigger paychecks elsewhere. Star tight end Tyler Eifert has also been sidelined with an ankle injury suffered in last year's Pro Bowl. The result hasn't been pretty, as the Bengals rank 24th in the league in scoring with a paltry 18.4 ppg average.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the Bengals sluggish offensive start has been their struggles running the ball. Despite the obvious physical talent of running back duo Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, the Bengals rank near the bottom of the league in most major rushing categories. They've averaged a pitiful 3.4 yards per carry (28th in the league) while managing over 100 rushing yards just once in their five games.
The Bengals backfield is a classic timeshare, with Hill serving as the early-down, between-the-tackles pounder and Bernard as the passing down back. Hill is a big physical runner who can be a load to tackle once he gets going, but it's been tough sledding for him early on this season, aside from a surprisingly effective effort against the Broncos defense in Week 3. He was forced from last week's loss to the Cowboys with a "chest" injury, but appears to be set to go Sunday after fully participating in practice Thursday. With the Patriots likely to devote more defensive resources towards stopping the Bengals passing game, perhaps the Bengals will counter by trying to get Hill going against what should be a steady diet of nickel defense. He is the type of back who gets better with more carries, as his brute size and physicality takes its toll on a defense over time.
The primary reason for the Pats to devote so many resources towards stopping the passing game is the presence of AJ Green, one of the best receivers the game has to offer. Green is in the midst of another monster season, as he's currently second in both receptions (36) and receiving yards (518) by the narrowest of margins. A constant big play threat, Green already has nine catches of 20+ yards and three that have gone for 40+.
Green poses an interesting matchup dillema for the press-man, matchup based tendencies of the Pats. Typically, Logan Ryan matches up with receivers of Green's size (6'4"), leaving Malcolm Butler to take the opponent's smaller, shiftier option. However, as Bill Belichick has noted this week, Green is a big receiver with the quickness of slot receiver, allowing him to be effective on all three levels of the field. That combined with the Bengals rolling out another big, physical receiver in old friend Brandon LaFell could lead the Pats to flip the script and put Butler on Green, entrusting Ryan to take LaFell without help.
As by far the Bengals biggest offensive threat, expect the Pats to have constant safety help over the top against Green. Preventing him from making any back-breaking big plays will likely be a focal point of the game plan. With help over the top, Butler will be able to be aggressive with Green at the line, using his physicality to disrupt the timing of Green's routes. Sure open field tackling will be a must against Green too, as the Bengals will periodically scheme ways to get him the ball in space to take advantage of his slippery open-field running. Green's height advantage (6'4" vs 5'10") is problematic in this matchup, as his enormous catch radius could lead to some contested catches, but the priority for the Pats will be to prevent any of his catches from turning into impact plays.
On the other side of the field, LaFell has bounced back from last year's disastrous season and is currently on pace for numbers closer to his breakout 2014 effort. Pats fans remember him most for his maddeningly inconsistent hands, but LaFell's combination of explosiveness, size and physicality can make him dangerous after the catch. Putting the sure-tackling Ryan on him should be a good way to neutralize him, as LaFell's poor hands and so-so route running makes him overly reliant on breaking tackles for extra yardage after the catch.
The slot has been manned by second round rookie Tyler Boyd. Boyd was uber productive in college and drew hype throughout the offseason, but he has yet to make a major impact in his rookie season, with the exception of a 6 catch, 78 yards output against Pittsburgh back in Week 2. He's not particularly explosive but a tactician of a route runner known for his hands. The Pats have seemed to go back-and-forth between Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones as their third corner this year based on matchup. The physicality Jones brings in press coverage could be a tougher matchup for Boyd, whose game is more reliant on timing than most receivers. However, Jones is coming off of a rough Week 5 when he gave up a touchdown before getting ejected, and it will be interesting to see if the Pats give him a chance to bounce back.
There was optimism earlier in the week that Eifert might be able to make his season debut this week, but that was ruled out today after he was unable to practice all week. Without Eifert, tight end has largely been manned by second year man C.J. Uzomah, a big bodied athlete who has done a respectable job both as a pass catcher and a blocker. Uzomah is currently nursing an ankle injury, but is fully expected to play after fully participating in practice yesterday. If he aggravates his injury, it will thrust Tyler Kroft into a larger role. A fellow second year player, Kroft was actually drafted two rounds ahead of Uzomah in the same draft, but he's fallen behind him on the depth chart after missing time in the preseason to a sprained knee.
|Bernard is dangerous in the open field|
Speaking of Dalton, he's hardly to blame for the Bengals slow start. Despite losing three of his top four pass catchers from a year ago, he's completed 67.45 of his passes, while averaging 8.0 yards per attempt and 300 passing yards per game. He's also carried over last season's improvement in taking care of the ball, with just two interceptions through five games.
The best way to neutralize Dalton has always been pressure, which has been easier to come by against this year's edition of the Bengals. The primary culprit in protection has been right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, who grades out as one of the worst starting tackles in the league. A first round pick from a year ago, Ogbuehi is essentially a rookie after missing the majority of last year recovering from a torn ACL from college. He's been abused in the first extensive action of his career and should be targeted by a Patriots pass rush that has been quiet recently.
The rest of the Bengals line has been solid. Seemingly ageless left tackle Andrew Whitworth remains one of the league's best, while Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler form one of the league's better tandems at guard. Center Russell Bodine hasn't been great, but has improved greatly from the poor form he showed during his first two years in the league. In spite of his improvement, he's another player for the Patriots pass rush to target, particular with linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower.
Bengals defense vs Patriots offense
Defensively, the Bengals have also fallen short of the lofty preseason expectations. They rank middle of the pack in scoring defense, allowing an average of 22 points per game. They've been particularly bad against the run, allowing 4.4 yards per carry while getting gashed on the ground in three of their five games.
|Dunlap is an edge rushing presence|
Things have been less productive at right end, where veteran Michael Johnson has failed to live up to his name recognition. Johnson was once one of the game's better edge defenders, but he's made very little impact in a sack-less start to the season. 2013 second round pick Margus Hunt also factors into the rotation on passing downs, where his inside-outside versatility has value, but he has yet to translate his considerable potential into reliable production through three full NFL seasons.
On the interior, Geno Atkins is a disruptive playmaker. Currently graded as the fifth best interior defender by PFF, Atkins has an explosive first step that allows him to shoot gaps and create negative plays. At 6'1" and 300 pounds, Atkins has a short, squatty build that gives him a leverage advantage against most lineman, which combines with his considerable strength and quickness to make him a nightmare to block. Expect the Pats to scheme for him, with whoever draws him likely to receive help from his neighbor in protection.
The rest of the interior rotation leaves much to be desired. Veteran Domata Peko has somehow retained his starting job despite season after season of mediocre play, while Pat Sims has at least provided decent play in a rotational role. As long as the two stars are contained (easier said than done), the Pats improved offensive line should be able to handle this group up front.
|Burfict brings a violent presence to the middle of the Bengals D|
Burfict will be flanked by a rotation of Karlos Dansby and Rey Maualuga. The 34 year old Dansby has long been one of the league's best linebackers, but hasn't lived up to his lofty standards so far in his 13th season. Maualuga brings name recognition as a former second round pick and college star, but his play has never lived up to the hype in the pros. He's had yet another subpar season, struggling to defeat blocks while being a slow-footed liability in coverage. On the other hand, Vincent Rey has excelled in coverage this season but has been relegated to sub-packages since Burfict's return to the lineup.
The Bengals secondary is loaded with former first round draft picks, but none of them have played up to their talent level this season. The starters are Dre Kirkpatrick, a fifth year pro who has never translated his first round physical talent into consistent play on the field, and Adam "Pacman" Jones. Jones has been one of the better corners in the league throughout the Bengals recent run of success, but he's had a rough start to his age 33 season. Like Burfict, Jones has a well-earned reputation as a penalty-prone loose cannon, but he's also a dangerous playmaker whose aggressive style of play creates turnovers. Tom Brady will have to be careful when targeting him, as he has the ball skills to win 50/50 balls and is always a threat to take it to the house once he gets his hands on the ball.
The rest of the cornerback rotation consists of 2015 fourth rounder Josh Shaw and 2014 first rounder Darqueze Dennard (who, yes, is a cousin of former Patriots corner Alfonzo Dennard). Dennard got the start back in Week 4, when Kirkpatrick was inactive with a hamstring injury, but Shaw played more snaps in last week's loss to the Cowboys, as his skill set is better suited for the slot than Dennard's. Shaw has graded out respectably at PFF so far this season, which is far better than Dennard's dismal marks.
At safety, George Iloka and Shawn Williams form a solid if unspectacular starting duo. Williams has performed adequately filling the role formerly held by Pro Bowler Reggie Nelson, but he hasn't been nearly the ball-hawking presence Nelson was last year, when he tied for the league lead in interceptions. Iloka has been a solid all-around player since emerging as a starter back in 2013. However, both he and Williams are better suited to roam the box than play a deep centerfield role. While both are solid players, they could certainly be targeted by Brady, who will like his chances with either of the Pats two tight ends against them.
The Bengals have failed to make an impact so far on special teams. Pacman has been a dangerous return man in the past, but neither he nor backup receiver Alex Ericson have managed to get going in the return game this year. As a team, the Bengals have averaged just 20 yards per kick return and 6.1 yards per punt return. The Patriots will kick into the end zone for touchbacks if they fear an opponent's return game enough (they did so against Miami in Week 2), but this looks like a game where they'll ask Stephen Gostkowski to kick it short, forcing the Bengals to try to return it beyond the 25 against the Pats excellent cover teams.
The Bengals have been up-and-down covering kicks and punts themselves. They did a nice job two weeks ago of containing dangerous Dolphins specialist Jakeem Grant, but allowed Dallas' Lucky Whitehead to have a few good returns last week. It remains to be seen how the Patriots will handle their own return game, as rookie Cyrus Jones has struggled with both his ball security and decision making in his return specialist role. He'll most likely continue to get chances, but Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are both available and steady-handed for fair catch situations. If active, DJ Foster also has the open field agility to threaten for reps.
Otherwise, the Bengals are average. Placekicker Mike Nugent has been automatic within 50 yards, but has missed both attempts from beyond that distance. Punter Kevin Huber ranks in the bottom third of the league in both net (39.7) and average (44.7).