By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Gillette Stadium is rightfully not known as one of the wilder buildings in the NFL, largely due to the open design of the seating and its being on the lower end of the capacity spectrum. But on Sunday afternoon, Gillette Stadium is going to get rowdy.
Though it’ll be a 1 p.m. start time and attendees thus won’t have much time to get lubed up, Patriots fans will be getting their first glimpse of the one and only Tom Brady as he makes his first appearance at Gillette Stadium this season.
All the eyes will, naturally, be drawn to Brady, but there’s a whole football game that needs to be played too. Here’s a rundown of what to watch for when these two teams take the field on Sunday.
Who Covers A.J.?
Back in 2014 when the Bengals came to town, this decision was simple. The Patriots put Darrelle Revis on A.J. Green, and that was that. Green ended up with five catches for 81 yards and a touchdown, but not all of that damage was done against Revis, and none of it made any impact in a game the Patriots led for most of the night.
This time around, it’s a different story. Malcolm Butler may be the team’s No. 1 cornerback, but he doesn’t always draw the toughest assignment. Logan Ryan has gotten DeAndre Hopkins in back-to-back meetings, for example, as well as drawing Larry Fitzgerald duty in Week 1 this year. It just might be Ryan again this time with Green, provided Devin McCourty and/or Patrick Chung and/or Duron Harmon keeps a close eye from up top.
Whoever it may be that draws the short straw and thus gets Green duty, it will be worth watching closely — especially early in the game. If the Patriots are ahead by a couple of scores in the first half, then there’s a bit less stress on the defense, particularly when it comes to giving up shorter completions. If the Bengals settle for getting Green 10-yard receptions (he’s averaging 14.4 yards per reception), the Patriots will probably happily accept that fate.
Surely, there’s almost no way that Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett combine to make 11 catches for 176 yards and three touchdowns again.
Well, based on the way it looked last week, it’s a dual-tight end threat that is simply going to be very difficult for opposing defenses to deal with. Take each tight end by his lonesome, and it’s a matchup nightmare. But then combine the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski with the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Bennett, and there are few teams equipped to deal with stopping that type of force from the tight end position.
Consider that this was Gronkowski’s first reaction upon first seeing Bennett in the flesh: “When I first saw him actually, I saw some big dude working out. I didn’t even know it was him. I knew who Martellus was and everything, but I just didn’t recognize him at the slight moment. I was like, ‘Man, that dude is huge.’ I was like, ‘Who is that?’ and they were like, ‘That’s Martellus Bennett,’ and I was like – I looked at him again and I was like, ‘Damn, that dude is huge.’”
When Rob Gronkowski is staring at you in disbelief of how large you are, chances are you’re quite large.
And with both of those guys operating at full steam, with Brady at quarterback, performances like last week’s vs. Cleveland could become somewhat of a regular occurrence for the tight end duo.
Down Goes Andy
In addition to the quest for winning more often than losing, another area in which the Bengals have struggled is in keeping their quarterback upright. Through five games, the Bengals have allowed 17 sacks, tied for second-most in all of the league.
The flip side of that coin is that the Patriots have a modest sack total of just nine through five games. Part of that has involved some suspect strategy in the Bills game, and another explanation can be found in Rob Ninkovich’s four-game suspension.
Now that Ninkovich has a game under his belt, and with the Bengals offensive line dealing with a jazzed-up home crowd making a lot of noise, expect Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia to dial up a few things that ought to confuse the visiting team.
Dalton took seven sacks in Week 1, a problem that’s been patched together somewhat in the weeks since. But he was taken down four times last week in Dallas, and in three road games thus far, he’s been sacked 12 times.
Really, the Patriots’ low sack total at nine is a bit inflated, as they were credited with sacks for chasing Tyrod Taylor out of bounds a few feet shy of the line of scrimmage. But this could be a week where they finally rack up a few sacks and join the NFL’s pass rush middle class.
OK, you can only talk about the game for so long before getting to the main event: Tom Brady.
The quarterback stayed true to his usual form this week in keeping his personal feelings to himself, but after being forced to sit out for a full month of an NFL season at age 39, you can bet Brady was frothing at the mouth waiting for this day. Once those piano notes in “PSA” hit the Gillette speakers for pregame warmups, Brady just might explode.
He certainly showed no signs of rust in his season debut last week in Cleveland, completing 14 of his first 16 passes (two for touchdowns) en route to dismantling the Browns. It was just the sixth time in his Hall of Fame career that he’s thrown for 400-plus yards and at least three touchdowns in a game.
And statistically speaking, Brady should have just as good of an opportunity to shred the Bengals this week.
The Browns rank 23rd in the NFL in yards per pass attempt. The Bengals rank 22nd.
The Browns rank 25th in opponents’ passer rating. The Bengals rank 22nd.
The Browns have given up the third-most passing touchdowns in the NFL. The Bengals have given up the fifth-most.
The Browns have five interceptions on the year. The Bengals have four.
These are, obviously, merely statistics, and they don’t necessarily indicate what will come this Sunday. They do, however, indicate that if Brady, Gronkowski, Bennett, Hogan, White, Edelman and whoever else want to get buck wild this Sunday at Gillette, the opportunity will be there for all of them.