After a cakewalk schedule to open the season, the New England Patriots finally aced their first true test of the season last Sunday night, holding on for an impressive prime-time win in Atlanta. Despite the near collapse, that marked the Patriots' best all-around effort of the season, considering the circumstances and opponent.
However, that performance can no longer be the exception if the Patriots hope to keep winning. In the midst of a three-game gauntlet, the Pats must use last week's game as a baseline in order to pull out another win against a talented yet semi-erratic Cincinnati Bengals team.
The Bengals present significantly different challenges from the Falcons, particularly on defense, where Cincy's bruising and well-rounded unit will mark Tom Brady's toughest challenge of the season to date. And while the Bengals offense is not particularly star-studded, two young explosive players could steal this game if the New England defense lets them loose.
Patriots fans are likely feeling confident after a win against a non-dysfunctional opponent, but lots of factors are working against New England this week. The defense must totally reinvent itself after Vince Wilfork's devastating injury, and it is always difficult to win back-to-back road games.
With the game likely a tossup, here are the three matchups that will have the biggest say on whether or not the Patriots can stretch their undefeated record another week.
It's rinse and repeat this week for Talib, who is coming off his best game as a Patriot. According to Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson, Talib allowed no catches on seven targets, and while it's asking a bit much for him to replicate the same results this week, he will need a similar effort against A.J. Green.
Green is an eerily similar receiver to Jones in that he is a big physically gifted receiver with the intelligence and fortitude to run the entire route tree. Andy Dalton has targeted Green a whopping 47 times, the second-highest total of any receiver this season. Consequently, look for Talib to shadow Cincinnati's lone outside threat, much like he did Week 3 against Vincent Jackson.
Between the 20s, Talib should fare well if he even comes close to his Atlanta performance. Talib's size and physicality really pays off in tight spaces. Even if he does not have elite lateral agility, he makes up for it with tremendous ball instincts. For instance, here Jones has him beat on a slant route, but Talib aptly reaches around to deflect the pass for an incompletion:
Where Talib might find trouble, however, is in the red zone. Green and Jones both have great leaping ability, and while the Falcons did not test Talib in that regard last week, the Bengals are much more likely to have Green run fade routes for jump balls into the end zone, like this:
Talib has had some issues in the past with jump balls, a surprising notion given his size (6'1", 205). Though he largely shut down Jackson earlier this year, this play is emblematic of those struggles. Here, Josh Freeman just simply lofts a pass down the sidelines—one Talib is in perfect position to defend:
But for whatever reason, Talib continues drifting away, taking himself out of position and conceding the catch. Judging by the shot, you might think that Jackson pushed off, but it was simply a rare case this season of poor technique by Talib:
Part of the Patriots' statistical improvement on defense entails its stinginess in the red zone. After conceding touchdowns on 56.6 percent of opponents' red-zone possessions in 2012, New England ranks fourth in red-zone touchdown percentage, yielding just 33.3 percent, per TeamRankings.com. Conversely, according to Pro-Football-Reference, only six wide receivers have hauled in more red-zone touchdowns than Green since his rookie season in 2011.
This is a strength-on-strength matchup, and one that will figure prominently into both teams' game plans.
Logan Mankins vs. Geno Atkins
Speaking of strength, Mankins and Atkins might be the two toughest, meanest players on the field Sunday, and they should be going head-to-head plenty of times. Fans don't often enjoy watching the trenches, but if you only do so once this year, try to keep an eye on Mankins vs. Atkins as often as possible.
Mankins is just rediscovering his All-Pro form after playing through all of 2011 with an ACL tear. But the 31-year-old is back to being the nasty tone-setter on the Patriots offensive line, bringing a violent physicality that older Patriots fans have claimed to remind them of John Hannah. Though this play occurs on special teams, it perfectly exemplifies how Mankins finishes every play:
Mankins has compiled a plus-6.2 rating thus far, the sixth-highest grade among all guards and better than he compiled in all of that debilitating 2011 season. What's especially encouraging is how well Mankins has rebounded in pass blocking, having already compiled a plus-2.8 rating after only racking up a plus-2.7 pass-blocking rating the past two years combined.
Mankins will need an exemplary game to contain Geno Atkins, an all-around behemoth who uses a combination of nimble athleticism and overwhelming power to rush the passer. It's axiomatic to say that Tom Brady struggles when forced to move off his spot, and he has completed just 50 percent of his passes when pressured this season. Atkins may thus be the single player in the NFL best-equipped to disrupt Brady—last season, only Vince Wilfork came remotely close among DTs to matching his impact:
Atkins was a monster last week against Cleveland, compiling two sacks, two hits and four hurries. As good as Mankins is, he will likely need help at times this week. For instance, here the Browns unwisely attempt to block Atkins one-on-one, making John Greco look quite foolish:
This time, instead of using a swim move, Atkins simply uses brute force, getting underneath Greco and shoving him aside like a rag doll. This is nothing short of pure domination:
Unfortunately, simply double-teaming Atkins every play is far too dangerous, since the Bengals have capable edge-rushers in Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Mankins will occasionally find himself on an island against the best defensive tackle in the league. For the passing game to sustain its newly discovered rhythm, he will have to win that matchup more often than not.
Brandon Spikes vs. Giovani Bernard
The biggest question following Vince Wilfork's injury is how the Patriots will defend the run. ESPN Stats & Info came out with a much-cited piece that illustrated how the Pats have been the worst run defense in football with Wilfork sitting, conceding five yards per carry.
Which of these matchups will have the biggest impact on the outcome?
The Bengals may not provided the sternest test, as their insistence on using the ex-Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis has led to subpar run production. However, when the Bengals break out their changeup in rookie Giovani Bernard, their offense becomes significantly more dangerous.
It's a tiny sample size, but Bernard's 4.6 yards-per-carry average on 32 attempts is 12th-highest among all running backs this year. Not having Wilfork in the middle might tempt Cincy to pound ahead with the Law Firm, but his plodding style would play right into New England's hands.
Indeed, if the Bengals insist on trying to exploit the middle, Brandon Spikes will likely have a field day. I've already speculated that the Pats might try playing a lighter base 4-3, using three cornerbacks in the back end. That would allow them to beef up to compensate for Wilfork's loss, while hedging against the pass with better coverage players.
There have also been theories that Bill Belichick might switch back to a 3-4 base, at least part of the time, and simply send Spikes or another linebacker to the line. Ex-Patriot Tedy Bruschi, someone particularly qualified to decipher Belichick's secretive thought process, echoed this point while writing for ESPN Boston:
Spikes is a package-specific player in this system. A run-stopping LB. The team was mainly in sub defenses against the Falcons. That's why Hightower got more reps. Hightower is a better all around 'backer in my opinion. Now with the Wilfork injury, I wouldn't put it past this coaching staff to line up in a 34 defensive look and just send Spikes into the line on an every-down basis.
Of course, the danger with playing a heavier package is the potential for disaster in pass coverage, as every single Patriots linebacker has been a liability in that area this season. Bernard is equally explosive as a receiver, something he has demonstrated with 12 receptions and a 10.2 yards-per-catch average.
Here against the Steelers, Bernard takes a simple checkdown pass from Dalton. He is wide open because the Steelers are playing an extremely soft Cover 3 zone, but three defenders see Bernard and begin to converge. In particular, Ryan Clark and Kion Wilson, the two on the left side of the field, have the angle to make a tackle.
And yet, Bernard completely outruns that angle, dashing in for a 27-yard touchdown. It helps that Wilson slips a bit breaking to the ball, but Bernard's open-field playmaking is on full display:
It's not hard to imagine Spikes or Hightower having similar issues adjusting to Bernard's shiftiness. Both are quite stiff and slow to react to route breaks—something that could be fatal against Bernard. If the Bengals get just a tad creative and isolate their rookie running back in space, that will surely create headaches for the Patriots defense.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required), and all images courtesy NFL Game Rewind.