by the Patriots Daily Staff
This week, the Patriots will try to go to 4-0 and stay atop the AFC when they travel to Cincinnati to take on the 1-2 Bengals on Monday Night Football. Let’s bring in the Roundtable gang for a look at the game.
Big picture: the Pats look pretty great right now. Small picture: what are their weaknesses?
Bruce Allen: Let’s see, Red Zone defense, Coach Belichick is 0-3 in challenges this season, the linebackers are old, the secondary has a history of being fragile, what else? Who am I kidding? None of these things are major. Injuries have to be the biggest worry of this club, especially to key positions. (Like, ummm, QUARTERBACK).
Greg Doyle: The defense hasn’t been dominant yet. And as Belichick pointed out this week, opposing teams are 5 for 5 in scoring touchdowns when in the red zone. So there is certainly room for improvement there. And their punting, albeit with a small sample size, hasn’t been overwhelming and it remains to be seen how Chris Hanson does here when the weather turns bad. Belichick did complement him this week, however, so he must be doing something right.
Tim Jordan: I can’t say it’s a weakness definitively at this point, but they still haven’t proven anything in the secondary. Cotchery and Coles had 14 catches for over 100 yards with Chad Pennington throwing to them and Gates had 7 catches and a TD. In the Bills game the secondary also tackled very poorly on Lynch’s 8 yard TD run to give up the only points of the game. The Bengals have a very proficient passing game with great WR’s (Chad Johnson may be the best in the game right now and Housh would be a #1 on 20 teams) and one of the best quarterbacks in the game. The secondary gets its biggest test come Monday.
Travis Graham: Well, the Pats are last in punting average, although it’s unofficial because they haven’t punted enough for it to count. Seriously, even if injuries hit this team they could still get by. They have adequate depth at every position for now. They would have to have multiple injuries at one position for it to have an effect.
Let’s get to Monday night’s game. First, will the Patriots offense dominate the Cincinnati defense (28th in YPG, 28th in points allowed) as expected?
Bruce: Unless some reverse lock theory comes into play, than yes, the Patriots will have their way with the Bengal defense on Monday night. I just don’t see how they can match up. It sounds like shameless homering, but really, based on what we’ve seen thus far from each team, how can you imagine anything other than the Patriots offense shredding the Cincinnati D?
Greg: Yeah, they might, unless they make mistakes and turn the ball over. Its possible that could happen, the crowd will be loud and the Bengals will be fired up at home after last season’s big Patriots win. They haven’t rushed the passer much this year. They haven’t covered the pass very well. They just have been bad. But sometimes when you least expect it, teams in the NFL come thru with big efforts. Something tells me the Bengals defense will be unexpectedly disruptive this week and put forth a big effort. Plus, the Pats are due for a sloppy game in which they turn it over. They should move the ball and score, they are really good on offense. But they need to be careful and not get too unattentive to details. Knowing the meaning of former Belichick assistant Chuck Bresnahan’s (the Benglas Defensive Coordinator) colored signs should help. Oops, they can’t look at that!
Scott Benson: One thing I noticed about them is they get a lot of turnovers for a team giving up 31 points a game. Nine (four int’s, four forced fumbles and fumble recoveries) in three games seems like a respectable total to me. They seem to always be standing there when the ball takes an odd bounce. If the Pats are sloppy Monday night, these guys will pick up on it – it’s their only hope.
Tim: Belichick mentioned their ballhawking ability in his Wednesday press conference and that is exactly the type of thing that could lose the game for them. The Patriots have been surgically efficient on offense through three games, but if Cincinnati forces a couple turnovers they could lose this game. Greg’s warning about the crowd is a good point, strange things happen in Monday night games. I think this defense will take some chances and come out with alot of emotion. They get paid too, as they say.
Kevin Thomas: Six of those turnovers, including all 4 fumble recoveries, came in the opener against Baltimore, who played an incredibly sloppy game but still probably deserved to win by multiple scores. I’m not sure that’s enough to say that they have a propensity to turn over the opposition–probably more a case of good fortune combined with one miserable performance by a team (Baltimore) not known for its offensive prowess. That said, watching that Bengals-Ravens game, it did seem like the Ravens got themselves somewhat unhinged by the crowd in the Queen City, and conversely the Bengals appeared to feed off it. The Bengals have now lost two straight on the road, and will be coming home this week to what should be another raucous prime-time crowd. They are also in somewhat of a desperate situation, as another loss could put them pretty deep in the hole for a playoff spot. This will also be the first time the Patriots play on the road since the camera scandal broke, which should add some extra fire to the already hostile crowd. A slow start like the Patriots had against Buffalo on Sunday, and things could start to snowball against them.
Travis: I think that the Pats will play ball control in this one. The Cinci defense is last in the NFL in stopping the run with 5.4ypc. The Pats should run the ball to chew up the clock and keep Palmer off the field.
Will the Patriots defense be able to contain the Bengals offense (4th in scoring, 5th in PPG) enough to give Tom Brady a margin of error?
Bruce: I think they will. If Rudi Johnson is unable to play than the Patriots can really concentrate on the Bengal receivers. Having Randall Gay as the nickel back is a nice option with both Samuel and Hobbs playing now, the health of the secondary has held up so far (knock on wood) and I hope it continues, as this group has some shutdown potential out there.
Greg: The Bengals are really good on offense, no doubt. But with Rudi Johnson banged up and possibly out at running back, its possible they could become very one dimensional. And that will hurt them as the Patriots usually feast on one-dimensional teams. If a back up comes trotting out at running back, the Patriots will see blood in the water and know they can stop the run and force even a great QB like Carson Palmer into mistakes.
Travis: This is going to be the interesting part. The Pats haven’t faced an offense this good as of yet. San Diego was supposed to be good, but I haven’t seen it with the new management in control this year. The Pats DBs have looked good so far, but have they really been tested? The Bills and the Chargers have very poor WRs and the Jets were able to move the ball pretty well through the air. It would be huge if Johnson doesn’t suit up because there isn’t much depth at RB. If that’s the case, the Pats could put most of the pressure on the outside in order to stop the two big receivers. The Pats won’t have to worry about being abused in the middle by the Bengals’ tight end R. Kelly since he’s caught only one short pass per game this year.
Kevin: I was shocked at how bad the Patriots made the Bengals offense look last year, especially after how effectively the Bengals moved the ball against them in their prior meeting in 2004. I expect that the Bengals will do much better this time around. As others have noted, lesser offenses have been able to drive the field against this defense in spurts. I worry that the Bengals will be able to do it regularly. Whether Rudi Johnson plays or not is kind of irrelevant, in my opinion. The big challenge is going to be pressuring Carson Palmer and minimizing breakdowns in coverage. This defense is eventually going to be very good, but I do think they are going through some growing pains as they integrate some new faces and while Asante Samuel gets back to full speed. I’d also watch to see how James Sanders performs against a very good passing team. He could be the weak link on Monday.
What about on the sidelines? I thought Marvin Lewis was supposed to be a defensive wizard. Then why does his defense suck?
Bruce: As an old friend used to say, maybe it’s not the X’s and O’s but rather the Jimmys and Joes. Marvin Lewis was a defensive wizard in Baltimore. He had the studs there that he does not have here with the Bengals. Just thinking off the top of my head, I think of three coordinators who were considered wizards as assistants, who then when they got head coaching jobs, their teams were the exact opposite. I think of Brian Billick, who was supposed to be a offensive genius with Minnesota, but goes to Baltimore and his teams have trouble scoring and are known for defense. Tony Dungy was a defensive minded coach as a coordinator in Minnesota – and then as a head coach with Tampa, he then comes to Indy and presides over one of the top offenses of our times. Finally, Lewis is a defensive genius with Baltimore and then has a high scoring club in Cincinnati who can’t stop anyone. Personnel obviously has so much to do with coaching styles.
Travis: It seems to me the biggest problem is their defensive line. They just aren’t that good. The DE Justin Smith is pretty good, but he’s working with JAGS who can’t stop the run or get pressure on the QB. If your DL can’t do those two things, nothing is going to work.
Tim: One of my rules is to never denigrate Virgil look-a-likes. Lewis’s head coaching career arc is a good example of how hard it is to sustain success in the NFL. He was a Coach of the Year candidate as a rookie head coach (actually was a bride’s maid to Belichick that year) and took a 2 win team to .500, the Bengals first non-losing season in 7 years. He was the toast of the NFL. Since then he’s 12-36. Are you listening, Eric Mangini? The two of you had identical resumes heading into your second years as head coaches, even down to the runner-up for CoY and 6 win improvement (except Lewis actually won something as a defensive coordinator prior to getting the gig). At least someone will be willing to hire Lewis when his time in Cincinnati comes to a close. You’re going to be forging permission slips for high schoolers wondering where it all went wrong.
The Pats playing on Monday night means we get all day Sunday to take in the rest of the NFL. Any games catch your eye?
Kevin: I’m curious about the Denver/Indy game. This could be another tough test for the Colts, after two close calls against divisional opponents on the road. I keep waiting for the Super Bowl hangover effect to hit the Colts, but so far it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. I also want to see how Denver’s vaunted cornerback duo of Champ Bailey and Dre Bly match up against Harrison and Wayne. The Jets and Buffalo play for 2nd place in the AFC East. That seems like a snoozefest, and I’ll be shocked if the Jets don’t win handily. The more worthwhile game is probably on FOX, where we’ll get another look at the Cowboys (vs. St. Louis) before their big early-season tilt with the Patriots two weeks from now. Because of recent history, I know I tend to fall into the trap of automatically assuming the top 4-5 teams in the NFL are AFC teams, but Dallas looks pretty impressive. Eventually, the AFC/NFC pendulum will have to swing back to the senior circuit, right? Could we be there yet?
Tim: I’m going to take advantage of the schedule and take back my weekend days. I’ll be tuning into the NFC East game on Sunday night – the Eagles and Giants are usually involved in entertaining games.