Tom Brady and Patriots face a significant test in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals in a game that will address the Pats’ significant question marks. Can the Pats’ young, inexperienced defense stop Cincy’s high-powered offense? And how will the offensive line handle the Bengals’ punishing front four without Logan Mankins?
Brady’s status for Sunday’s game came into question Thursday morning after the Patriots quarterback was involved in a two-car crash in downtown Boston. The latest report indicates that Brady is not injured by the accident and attended Thursday’s walk-through practice with no issues.
“He’s here, he’s ready to go,” said tight end Alge Crumpler.
Speaking of tight ends, the Patriots boast two talented rookies entering the season, and expect both to contribute to the offensive attack immediately. Rob Gronkowski, a 2010 second-round draft pick out of Arizona, had a strong preseason with four touchdown catches.
Patriots tackle Matt Light told Gresh & Zolak Thursday morning that Crumpler has embraced the veteran leadership role to both Gronkowski and fellow rookie Aaron Hernandez very well.
“These guys are doing a great job,” Light said of the two rookie tight ends. “And they got a great mentor in Alge [Crumpler], who’s always on them to do the little things right.”
The 6-foot-6 Gronkowski shined in the preseason and showed great rapport with Brady. He was a bright spot in an otherwise ugly Patriots loss against the Rams on Aug. 26, catching two touchdowns from Brady, who exuded confidence in his hulking new target.
“He’s such a big kid, it’s hard to tackle him because he’s so strong,” Brady told reporters after the game. “That second touchdown catch he made was equally impressive. I threw it and he went up and got it.”
This is the first meeting between the Patriots and Bengals since Oct. 1, 2007, when the Patriots trounced the Bengals 34-13. Brady threw three touchdown passes, including two to Randy Moss.
Brady enters Sunday’s game with a 111.2 career passer rating against Cincinnati. But this time around, the Bengals defense may not be so lenient. Cincinnati made significant improvements on defense in 2009, ranking sixth in the NFL in points allowed with 18.2 per game.
Veteran linebacker and team captain Dhani Jones led the team with 113 tackles, while defensive end Antwan Odom enjoyed a career season with 8 sacks in just 6 games before rupturing his Achilles tendon. Odom is expected to start against the Patriots.
The Bengals also bring a much-improved secondary into the 2010 season, with former first-round draft picks Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph emerging as a permier cornerback tandem. Hall and Joseph led the Bengals with six interceptions apiece in 2009.
“I think they’re three of the best we’ll face all year and I don’t know if any teams have three as good as they do,” Brady said in a Wednesday conference call with Cincinnati media of the Bengals cornerbacks, which includes Adam “Pac-Man” Jones.
The Bengals still face a significant challenge in the Patriots passing attack. Moss returns for his fourth season as a Patriot and Wes Welker is expected to start in the slot, completing a remarkable comeback from an ACL tear suffered on Jan.3.
Welker led the NFL in receptions in 2009 with 123, despite missing two games and most of the season finale following his ACL injury. His 346 receptions since the beginning of the 2007 season are tops in the league.
As for the Patriots defense, they enter the season with serious questions. Defensive end Ty Warren and cornerback Leigh Bodden are both on injured reserve with season-ending injuries. Felger & Massarotti have been concerned about their lack of depth and experience on defense all preseason.
Rookie Devin McCourty and second-year player Darius Butler top the depth chart at cornerback, and are expected to start Sunday. They’ll have their hands full with Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens starting at wideout for the Bengals. Ochocinco said just last week that he has a special celebration in mind for Sunday’s game.
The Patriots already lacked a consistent pass rush in 2009 before Warren’s injury, with Tully Banta-Cain leading the team with 10 sacks. The team hopes to get contributions in the pass rush from rookie linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham, former teammates from Florida.
The Patriots will also be without Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, who is currently holding out for a contract extension. Fifth-year guard Dan Connolly is expected to start in Mankins’ place, and Light told Gresh & Zo that he believes Connolly is ready.
“He’s always been very well prepared,” Light said of Connolly. “It’s his time to go out and make it happen.”
The offensive line will need to protect Brady well all game long, because the Patriots may need to score prodigious points to keep up with the Bengals offense. In addition to Ochocinco and quarterback Carson Palmer, Cincinnati also returns runningback Cedric Benson, who is coming off a 1,251-yard season in just 13 games in 2009.