Some things remain the same for both teams, Bill Belichick is still the coach of the Patriots and Tom Brady is still the quarterback. For the Bengals, Marvin Lewis is still the coach and Carson Palmer is still the quarterback. But much has changed as well.
For the Bengals, they went 7-9 during that 2007 campaign and then slumped to 4-11-1 in 2008. Marvin Lewis’ job was reportedly on the line last year. Many changes among personnel and coaching staff occurred. 2009 really was a make or break year for those who remained with the team. In much quieter fashion than the 2010 featured team, it was the Bengals who appeared as the featured team for the 2009 edition of the HBO television series “Hard Knocks” leading up to the season. Yours truly was a regular watcher of that edition and enjoyed it tremendously.
And what he saw surprised him. A tougher and smarter personality in coach Marvin Lewis than previously realized. A new, innovative successful defensive coordinator in Mike Zimmer. A star quarterback, Carson Palmer, who cared deeply about winning and put in the time and effort to try to do so. A top NFL personality, Chad Ochocinco, who is funny, truly refreshing (unlike others who carry the same label) and fun to watch. But beyond that, the show revealed other things about Ochocinco. That he’s a leader. That he’s tough. That he too cares deeply about winning and his teammates. That he goes all out on the field all the time. For all his shenanigans, to me the 2009 edition of Hard Knocks showed me Ochocinco is a great teammate for his fellow Bengals, that he may make noise, but its in a positive way. That he is never negative and his personality quirks and antics are usually within a team framework and aimed at never putting other players or other teams down, but instead are positive and actually bring something good to the team he is on.
Overall, I came away impressed with the 2009 Bengals, which is decidedly opposite how I feel about the New York Jets, next week’s Patriots opponent, appearance on Hard Knocks this pre-season. I saw a Bengals team flying under the radar, determined to put unsuccessful seasons behind, that didn’t talk and just worked hard. And it paid off. The Bengals went 10-6 and won a very competitive division in the AFC North last year. Injuries caught up and they faded late in the year and were knocked out of the playoffs early at home. But there is reason for optimism going forward.
The Bengals have added some pieces they hope will allow them to take the next step off their division championship. They’re not just looking for a good season again, they’re looking to be a true contender for the NFL Championship this year. So lets take a look at some of the new players they’ve added to their playoff team and who’ll the Patriots will have to contend with Sunday in Foxboro at 1PM.
Terrell Owens (#81), WR: Sunday will mark the debut of star WR Terrell Owens with the Bengals. It will be the start of his 15th season in the NFL and his 5th NFL team. The Patriots bottled up Owens pretty well last year in two appearances against him while he was with the Buffalo Bills last year. And its hard to say if Owens is fading quickly after a so-so season with the Bills last year (55 catches, 829 yards, 5 touchdowns) or its merely a product of poor quarterback play he was teamed with. The answer probably is a little of both. Owens will be 37 this year, but on the other hand has always kept himself in fantastic shape. NFL teams were slow to sign him this off-season, and that could be a sign of fading play, but it may also be a bit of the baggage that has come along with T.O. during his long career. He was on his best behavior with the Bills last season and has had no troubles with the Bengals so far. Teamed with another solid receiver in Ochocinco and given the Patriots questions in the secondary, he undoubtedly is still a threat to do damage any given Sunday. He’ll have a better quarterback throwing to him as well and better weapons around him. The Patriots young corners, Darius Butler and Devin McCourty, will have their hands full.
Jermaine Gresham (#84), TE: Rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham from the University of Oklahoma will present another match up problem for the Patriots defense. The Bengals first round pick, #21 overall he, like the Patriots rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, sat out his senior year in college. In Gresham’s case it was a knee injury. Despite that, his good post-season workouts and impressive earlier college career kept him in the first round. And like Gronkowski, an impressive pre-season has teams in the NFL looking at an additional weapon they’ll have to contend with when facing the Bengals. Gresham is 6’5″ 261, but runs a quick 4.7/40 and really is a terrific athlete. He runs smoothly and with quickness, yet has power to break tackles when he does get the ball. His hands are outstanding. He is particularly tough going down the seam and with his height can go up and get the ball if the defense puts a shorter safety on him. Despite a good receiver group and strong running game on the Bengals, Gresham is a weapon the Patriots will have to specially account for as well.
Jordan Shipley (#11), WR: The Bengals have another rookie who’ll receive some playing time on offense and that is Jordan Shipley from the University of Texas. The Bengals 3rd round choice, he’ll be the slot receiver in multiple sets and works that position well. An impressive pre-season for him as well shows teams will have to be careful of him on inside routes. He is used in similar fashion as the Patriots use Wes Welker. As the slot guy, its likely he’ll be matched up often with Patriots third corner Jonathan Wilhite and this may be a match up the Bengals look to exploit. Shipley has far greater quickness than Wilhite in and out of cuts and that could be good in trying to convert third and less than 10s. The Patriots would be wise to give Wilhite a little help on these downs and distances with the Bengals undoubtedly looking for him and/or Gresham over their bigger name receivers often times.
Reggie Nelson (#20), S: Nelson is a talented guy and former high draft pick (#21 overall) of the Jacksonville Jaguars. After a disappointing three seasons there, Nelson was traded to Cincinnati just this week for cornerback Donald Jones, a sign that Jacksonville gave up on him and he is now in bustville territory as a former first round pick. The fact is, the Patriots have a lot of room to exploit the Bengals safeties. Nelson is a guy who, while a knockout hitter, has always struggled in coverage. That’ll be even more true while he tries to learn the Bengals defense in a week as reportedly he has always struggled mentally with knowing defenses as well. He’ll still probably be on the field some, though, as a third safety particular given how often the Patriots spread it out and with all their new tight end weapons. In fact, all the Bengals safeties are more run support, hard hitter types who aren’t very good in coverage. If the Patriots look to exploit this in the middle of the field, new tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Alge Crumpler and slot receiver Wes Welker could have big days running free in the Bengals secondary.