By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Just over two years after the famous “On to Cincinnati” game, Tom Brady and the Patriots are back in Foxboro getting ready for the Bengals to come to Foxboro.
It’s a wildly different situation for both teams this time around – in fact, the positions are almost completely reversed. In 2014, the Bengals were 3-0 and had outscored their opponents 80-33 to start the season while the Patriots sat at 2-2 and were coming off a 41-14 drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. Remember when Brady and the Patriots were not good anymore?
This time, the Patriots are 4-1 and are coming off a blowout win with Brady looking like he has no signs of rust after sitting out the first four games of the season, while the 2-3 Bengals are coming off a 28-14 loss in Dallas that wasn’t even as close as the score suggested. If the Bengals had any sort of heart as a team, they would come out on fire in this game – but that alone won’t be enough to vanquish the Patriots with Brady in Foxboro.
The Patriots could employ a similar strategy against the Bengals on both sides of the ball to what you saw against the Browns in Week 5, certainly similar to the last time these two teams faced each other. But the Patriots offense will certainly look different with Martellus Bennett providing the second of a two-headed monster at tight end, so Brady will likely find different ways to attack the Bengals defense.
The usual suspects return for the Cincinnati offense. Old friend Brandon LaFell returns to Foxboro donning the orange & black, but quarterback Andy Dalton is still in the fold, along with superstar wide receiver A.J. Green and the team’s solid running game led by Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
How will the Patriots approach Sunday’s showdown with the Bengals? Let’s take a look at how some players have performed this season, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system, and whom the Patriots may try to eliminate and exploit.
ELIMINATE: Wide receiver A.J. Green. It goes without saying that the Pro-Bowl receiver will be at or near the top of the list for players that Bill Belichick wants to limit in this game, if not wipe him out entirely. Belichick has had plenty to say this week when asked about Green, going into great detail about his vast array of skills as a receiver – which is a strong way of hinting at his gameplan for the week.
As athletic and explosive Green is, he’s not the toughest receiver in the league – and that’s why he can be stopped. Darrelle Revis manhandled Green when the Bengals came to Foxboro two years ago, so it will be interesting to see if Malcolm Butler is given the task this time around. It’s more likely the Patriots go with their usual strategy of bracketing the top receiver with Logan Ryan and a safety over the top. Big catches down the field are Green’s forte, but Belichick spoke a lot about his prowess in intermediate routes and good quickness.
It doesn’t matter who, in particular, will cover Green. If there is one player whom Belichick will not tolerate making big plays against the Patriots, it’s No. 18. Look for the defense to shut him down for most of the game, with Green getting a few plays of his own as his targets are inevitably going to be in double-digits.
EXPLOIT: Bengals linebackers, in pass coverage.
The Bengals defense has been pretty good up front, according to PFF. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and edge defender Karlos Dunlap have compiled overall grades of 84.0 and 86.7, respectively. Look for them to potentially generate pressure on Brady through the right side of the offensive line.
The Bengals linebackers, however, have not looked so hot, especially when tasked with dropping back in coverage. Karlos Dansby and Rey Maualuga have particularly struggled in coverage, with respective grades of 54.4 and 48.7, while playing 195 combined coverage snaps. Vontaze Burfict, who returned from a three-game suspension two weeks ago, has been slow to get back up to speed, with a 45.3 coverage grade.
Gronkowski and Bennett will just about always find themselves in favorable matchups, but against the Bengals linebackers the way they are playing right now, the duo has a chance to be especially unstoppable. Like he did against the Browns – whose linebackers were actually playing well – look for Brady to find each tight end for double-digit catches and multiple touchdowns combined.
ELIMINATE: Running back Giovani Bernard. The Bengals also have a power back in Hill, but the Patriots defense proved capable of shutting down that kind of runner after eliminating the Brown’ Isaiah Crowell last Sunday.
Giovani Bernard, however, out-touched Hill 15-5 last Sunday in Dallas and looks to be taking the lead in the Cincy backfield. The Patriots have struggled against running backs catching passes out of the backfield this season, at least in terms of efficiency – they’ve allowed 28 catches on 35 targets to running backs so far this season.
The Patriots particularly struggled to contain the Bills’ LeSean McCoy, who caught all six targets for 38 yards and a touchdown reception. Bernard is a similar back to McCoy with his shiftiness and open-field quickness, so the Bengals may look to feed him the ball often. Shutting him down could be a bigger challenge than it will be for Green, but keeping him from breaking off big plays has to be one of Belichick’s most important tasks on Sunday.
EXPLOIT: Bengals secondary, with the run game. Just like the Patriots will have to focus on limiting Giovani Bernard in the passing game, they could also look to their own running backs to exploit the second and third levels of the Bengals defense. Bengals starting corners Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam “Pac-Man” Jones have been useful in coverage this season, but have really struggled against running backs with 40.6 and 40.2 grades in that department.
Obviously, LeGarrette Blount could absolutely truck either Jones or Kirkpatrick if he is able to get that far into the defense. The onus for the run game against these defensive backs could fall on James White, who looked rejuvenated against the Browns with Brady throwing him the ball. It’s likely that White will get a lot of looks split out wide and catching the ball in space, giving him a chance to use his straight-line speed and quickness to exploit the Bengals’ tackling issues in the back end of the defense.
Cincinnati has given up 17 catches to running backs for 158 yards – an average of 9.29 yards per catch. Look for White to at least be put in a position to break off some big plays in the passing game against the Bengals secondary.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.