By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots travel for the second week in a row for a difficult road test against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Patriots (4-0) won another close game last Sunday night against the Atlanta Falcons 30-23 and are alone on top of the AFC East at the quarter mark of the 2013 season.
The Bengals (2-2) are in a three way tie for the division lead in the tough AFC North. They’ve had some struggles early this season but are considered a favorite to take the crown this season in a division that is still wide open.
The game will be broadcast on CBS with Greg Gumble and Dan Dierdorf handling the play-by-play and color analyst duties.
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. We’re going to run a column, the “Razor’s Edge” to give a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and Bengals have met 22 times in their history with the Patriots holding a 14-8 edge.
The Pats have won the last four in a row and 7of the past 8 meetings, the last which was opening day in Foxboro in 2010 with New England winning 38-24.
One the road in Cincinnati, the games are an even 6-6.
The Patriots offense is starting to come together a little bit after starting slow. They scored 30 points for the first time in 2013 and it seems that the confidence level, especially between QB Tom Brady and the rookie wide receivers is beginning to grow.
It is no coincidence that Brady also had his first 300 yard game on Sunday as well as Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edelman both topping 100 yards receiving in the same contest. This week they’ll face a tough defensive opponent in the Bengals.
The Patriots running game has been good getting at least 130 yards on the ground in three of their four games thus far.
Patriots RBs vs Bengals Front Seven- Edge Push
The Bengals have a terrific front four led by DTs Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, as well as DEs Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. They are a tough unit to run against and they have a group of active linebackers with Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison.
The Patriots have stayed patient with their running game and it has paid dividends. They’ve rushed for 158,156 and 132 yards in three of their four wins this season. Stevan Ridley is still the most explosive back of the team’s committee approach, but LaGarrette Blount has had some nice vision and has served as the “closer” the past two games. Brandon Bolden will ensure that all three stay fresh.
**One new development that bears watching is that Bengals DE Michael Johnson has been suffering concussion symptoms this week, if he’s unable to go, it would be a big loss for their defense.**
Patriots WRs vs Bengals Secondary- Edge Patriots
Kenbrell Thompkins is becoming a favorite target of Tom Brady.
(USA TODAY Images)
The Bengals strength is a strong pass rush with Atkins, Johnson and Dunlap providing excellent pressure from the front four and have a deep secondary. But that depth is being tested Terence Newman has a sore knee and Leon Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick as well as Reggie Nelson all have hamstring issues.
Hall is possibly expected back this week which would be a big boost for the defense but if Johnson can’t go because of concussion issues would be a big blow. Johnson is one of the most productive 4-3 DEs in rushing the QB according to Pro Football Focus.
The Patriots are getting a career year from Julian Edelman who is tied for the NFL lead in receptions with 34 and the rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson are improving each week.
If the offensive line can give Brady time to throw, they’ll be some open lanes with the banged up secondary of Cincinnati has right now.
The Patriots defense has been very good this season and is much improved over the past several years. It begins in the secondary with the unit having continuity for the first time in recent memory and with an outstanding performance thus far from CB Aqib Talib.
Talib has had a fantastic year, starting in the spring and working through training camp and the quarter point of the season. Simply put he’s made the rest of the players around him better and they play with much more confidence with him on the field.
Aqib Talib is having an outstanding 2013 for the Patriots Defense.
(USA TODAY Images)
The team took a huge hit with the loss of DT Vince Wilfork to an Achilles tendon injury and he won’t be an easy player to replace on or off the field.
Bengals RBs vs NE Front Seven- Edge Patriots
The Bengals running game has had its issues getting untracked this season and this week, especially with Wilfork out they’ll be looking to find the balance they’ve been lacking.
Giovani Bernard is a multi-talented back that can run (4.6 ypa average) or catch (12 receptions) who is taking over the lead role for Cincinnati. Former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis (2.7 ypa) is being relegated to a more short yardage role.
The Patriots have been adept at keeping opponents from establishing the run and even without Wilfork should be able to keep the Bengals at bay. For now, Joe Vellano and Chris Jones will have to share the space next to Tommy Kelly and step up their games.
Bengals WRs vs NE Secondary-Edge Bengals
A.J. Green is the focal point of the Bengals’ passing game, he’s a 6’4 big target very similar in stature but less physical than they faced last week in Julio Jones. Stopping him will be the Patriots main focus this week.
Green will most certainly draw Aqib Talib this week as the Patriots under Bill Belichick has always been to take away an opponent’s best weapon and force them to beat him with secondary outlets. Limiting Green could have a major effect on QB Andy Dalton’s effectiveness, which has been a major criticism of him.
When Green has struggled, Dalton has had issues moving the offense. This week, he could involve the tight ends Jermaine Gresham and rookie Tyler Eifert against the Patriots linebackers and secondary. Given the defense’s struggles against Atlanta, Dalton may get them involved early.
The key here for New England, is to disrupt Dalton’s first read with physical play at the line of scrimmage and bring pressure and force mistakes. Look for Dalton to test the deep ball early in this one Sunday.
Special Teams- Edge Patriots
In head-to-head matchups the punting units are evenly matched with Cincinnati’s Kevin Huber and the Pats rookie Ryan Allen being very solid, Ryan had two punts in Atlanta with over five seconds of hang time.
Both units have had solid coverage and neither has had their kickoff returns bear much fruit yet. The Bengals have former Patriot and dangerous returner Brandon Tate handling the job while the Pats have Blount.
But the Pats get the edge in punt returns with Edelman being more effective than Tate thus far and at Kicker with Stephen Gostkowski who is playing very solid over Mike Nugent.
Player to Watch- Rob Ninkovich
The focus player on defense this week is Patriots DE Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich was recently rewarded with a long-term contract extension and has been playing outstanding this season.
This game is a tailor-made opportunity for Ninkovich to make a big impact for the underrated player from Purdue. With all the focus on Wilfork’s injury and the play of Atkins for the opposition, Ninkovich always seems to fly under the radar.
But Ninkovich is solid in both run support and rushing the passer, last week he even dropped into coverage showing his versatility. One thing he’s been is clutch, he always seems to get a key sack or force a fumble at a big time of the game.
And this week with the focus everywhere but on him, keep your eyes on #50 in white.