One quarter of the way through the 2013 NFL season, the New England Patriots remain undefeated. While New England expects to play four more important quarters come February, the Patriots certainly have to be pleased with the way their season has started.
The same can't be said for their Week 5 opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, who have started out a disappointing 2-2 due to injuries and inconsistent quarterback play.
Back-to-back road tests are always difficult, so the Patriots will certainly have to earn any victory they might come away with this week.
Patriots Offense vs. Bengals Defense
The Bengals have a lot of large, angry individuals in their front seven. If Logan Mankins and the rest of the Patriots offensive linemen can keep Geno Atkins and his compatriots off of Tom Brady, Brady should be able to make some plays down the field.
The Bengals' defensive backfield is missing many of its top performers—Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick were held out of practice on Wednesday, according to Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer—and even at full strength, it won't have the firepower to stop the Patriots if Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are ready to play.
If Gronkowski, Amendola and rookie Aaron Dobson are not able to play, however, Brady will have to rely on the likes of undrafted tight end Zach Sudfeld or inexperienced rookie Josh Boyce.
I expect the Patriots to establish the run early and then start picking on the undisciplined Bengals linebackers and banged-up secondary with the play-action pass. Once the linebackers take a couple of false steps, that will open up acres of space for Julian Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins to exploit.
Patriots Defense vs. Bengals Offense
In the wake of Vince Wilfork's Achilles injury, the Patriots have at least one thing going for them: the element of surprise. There is no telling what sort of formations defensive coordinator Matt Patricia might trot out against Andy Dalton.
Dalton is very adept at getting the ball out quick, so the Patriots' cornerbacks need to be on their toes early for all sorts of underneath routes. He also has the benefit of good pass protection from his offensive line, so he is able to take a longer drop and target A.J. Green down the field when needed.
If the Bengals can get young running back Gio Bernard matched up on one of the slower Patriots linebackers, that is a matchup they will try and exploit.
What They're Saying
I was also a fan of Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 to try to seal the game on New England's final meaningful possession, the one that ended with Tom Brady fumbling a fourth-and-1 snap for the second time this season and losing the ball.
I've covered Brady's success on these plays in the past, and while he's not 100 percent, he's about as close as an NFL player can be in short yardage. You don't want to risk him on every short-yardage conversion, but sealing a game seems like a good time to pull that off.
And just like with the Falcons, poor execution doesn't negate a proper decision. Belichick's playing to the historical strength of his team (offense) and avoiding its recent weakness (defense) while doing the same thing in terms of what Atlanta is and isn't good at. You give Atlanta better field position by not punting, but the reward of possibly ending the game is very obviously worth the risk.
Even thought the Bengals defensive line is quite talented, look for Belichick to continue his aggressive ways on fourth and short.
Tale of the Tape
The Bengals are in quarterback purgatory. Andy Dalton isn't good enough to take them to the next level, but he isn't bad enough for them to actively pursue a new option. Tom Brady, however, is Tom Brady.
Gio Bernard is a terror out of the backfield in the passing game and is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball. Former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still a plodding running back, but he rarely makes a negative play.
Other than LeGarrette Blount, all of the Patriots running backs are banged up. They are playing well, but they lack the explosive play ability in the passing game that they have had in the past with Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk.
After facing Vincent Jackson and Julio Jones the two weeks prior, the Patriots certainly don't earn a reprieve this week. A.J. Green will be the best receiver on the field every time they are not playing Calvin Johnson's Detroit Lions. Despite Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Julian Edelman's fine play, they just can't compete with Green.
Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu—two of Green's fellow wideouts—aren't slouches themselves. Kyle Arrington will have his work cut out for him in the slot.
Rob Gronkowski's presence instantly changes this analysis, but I'm not including him until he actually sees the field. Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham aren't exactly lighting the world on fire, but they are more of a threat in the passing game than Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Sudfeld and Matthew Mulligan.
The Patriots might have the edge in the run-blocking department, but the Bengals have been exceptional in pass protection this year. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Bengals have only given up 31 total pressures through four games, compared to 50 for the Patriots. If Dalton could help out his offensive line by not running himself into sacks, its stats would look even better.
Both left tackles, Andrew Whitworth and Nate Solder, will be fun to watch in this game.
This decision would have been close if this game were played last week, but with Vince Wilfork out, Cincinnati clearly has more depth and talent. Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Tommy Kelly and rookie Michael Buchanan have all played well, but Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko have the edge here.
Atkins hasn't played up to his 2012 performance, but the Patriots can't expect him to wait until Week 6 to get his season started.
The Patriots' linebacker corps of Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo has yet to be outplayed this year. They do their job and rarely make mental mistakes. The Bengals have the edge in physicality with James Harrison, Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict, but their discipline is certainly lacking.
With Bengals cornerbacks Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick possibly out for the game, Aqib Talib and the Patriots defensive backs are an easy choice. Talib is getting many of the accolades, but Alfonzo Dennard is also quietly putting together a very good season.
Stephen Gostkowski has been nearly perfect, missing only one kick through the first four games. His kickoffs have been booming as well. Mike Nugent is 4-of-5 on field-goal attempts; his lone miss was over 50 yards, and he also has a missed extra point on the season.
The tale of the tape lies in favor of the Patriots here, including the all-important quarterback position. Despite the Bengals' defensive line, injuries in the defensive backfield could open things up too much for the Patriots' passing attack.
Wednesday's Injury Report Analysis
Did Not Participate: Stevan Ridley, Matthew Slater, Vince Wilfork
Limited Participation: Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Kyle Arrington, Marquice Cole, Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden, Will Svitek, Kenbrell Thompkins, Leon Washington, Sebastian Vollmer, Tavon Wilson
Full Participation: None
Other than Slater and Wilfork, nobody is a lock to miss the Bengals game. Dobson, Amendola and Gronkowski are the longest shots, but the fact that this is a conference game might help get them on the field.
None of the other injuries on the report are thought to be too serious, although the amount of nicks, knocks and bruises in the offensive and defensive backfields is cause for concern.
For the Bengals, cornerbacks Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick both were held out of practice. Defensive end Michael Johnson was also out with a concussion. Safety Reggie Nelson and linebacker Vontaze Burfict were limited.
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