A week ago, Sunday’s New England-Cincinnati game looked like the perfect precursor to a possible rematch in this season's AFC Championship Game. Both teams were trending in a positive direction. Their defenses were stout and healthy. And their offenses looked like they were finally getting into nice rhythms and flows after an offseason that saw both go through personnel changes.
What a difference a week makes.
The Patriots still have that upward trend going. Fresh off a confidence-building 30-23 win in Atlanta, New England comes to Cincinnati this weekend 4-0 and looking like one of the best teams in the league. The only real change is that its once-healthy defense took a major hit with veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s season-ending injury.
The Bengals are still dealing with their own health issues as a trio of defensive backs are trying to return this week. Without them, the entire team took a big step backward in a 17-6 loss at Cleveland that had players and coaches searching for answers. They hope they find them this weekend. If not, they’ll fall to 2-3.
For this edition of Double Coverage, we turn to ESPN.com Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss:
Harvey: Mike, we’ll go on and get to the big question I’m sure people all over New England have been asking the past few days: Who in the world is Joe Vellano and can he be an adequate replacement for Vince Wilfork?
Reiss: No, Coley, but that’s not as much of a knock on Vellano as it is a reflection of Wilfork’s excellence. Vellano is an undrafted rookie from the University of Maryland and he had one of the big defensive plays of the Patriots’ 30-23 win over the Falcons on Sunday night -- a third-quarter sack in which he made a quick move on center Peter Konz. He’s considered a bit undersized by NFL standards at 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds but plays with good technique, and Bill Belichick said he’s a first-on-the-field, last-to-leave type of player. Belichick also said there aren’t many Vince Wilforks out there. So it’s a big hit for the Patriots. How are things looking on the Bengals’ injury front?
Harvey: Before covering the Bengals, I got to know Mr. Vellano's play quite well while covering ACC football. Belichick’s assessment is pretty spot on. I’ll certainly be interested to see if, in the interim, he’s able to take over the line in a manner reminiscent of what he did in college.
One other thing I’ll be keeping my eye on this week in Cincinnati is the Bengals’ defensive backfield. Last weekend, three defensive backs (corners Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Reggie Nelson) were declared inactive because of hamstring injuries. The Bengals actually handled Cleveland’s receivers OK without them. The replacements only botched one or two third downs and dropped a couple of interceptions. All signs point to Kirkpatrick making a return this week, but the biggest spots of concern are Hall’s and Nelson’s positions. It could be a rough week if Cincinnati is without them again. Speaking of secondary play, it seems as though Aqib Talib has a pigskin magnet in his hands. What explains his four interceptions?
Reiss: Talib has been a real difference-maker for the Patriots since they acquired him last November from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a trade. He is playing very well, at a Pro Bowl level in my view, and his presence has been a big part of the defense playing at the high level it has through four games. I don’t believe the Patriots have had a true man-to-man matchup cornerback with Talib’s complete package since Ty Law (1995-2004) and that includes Asante Samuel. In Week 3, we saw Talib essentially follow Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson all over the field. It’s possible we see the same type of approach against A.J. Green on Sunday. Fill us in on what makes this Bengals offense go … assuming it’s going anywhere at this point.
Harvey: Well, if we used last week as the only reference point, we would see that the Bengals’ offense isn’t being motored by much at all. There’s no ground game to speak of and the passing game has been inconsistent. The offensive line and tight ends are the only ones who have played at a solid level all season. Aside from the four times Andy Dalton was sacked against Green Bay, the line has mostly kept him upright this season.
In theory, the Bengals want their offensive identity to hinge upon the run setting up the pass. (Earlier this week, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden admitted the unit is still searching for just what that identity is.) They have two running backs in former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovani Bernard, who are more than capable of picking up big yards at any time, but for whatever reason they just haven’t done that consistently this season. Beyond that, Dalton and Green have formed a formidable duo in the passing game.
It looks as though Tom Brady has a few weapons on offense this year. Who are turning into his top targets with Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski out?
Reiss: It has been Julian Edelman and undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins (the former Cincinnati Bearcat) playing the majority of snaps at receiver. Edelman is tied for the NFL lead with 34 receptions and he might be one of the more undersold stories in the league. A seventh-round draft choice in 2009 from Kent State who made the transition from college quarterback to NFL receiver/punt returner, he was supposed to be the heir apparent to Wes Welker if the day ever came that Welker was no longer with the club. But a confluence of events, most notably a series of injuries, led to him becoming a free agent this past offseason and he received little interest on the open market. So he came back to New England on a minimum-level, one-year deal, with the chance to earn more in incentives, as the Patriots paid the big bucks to Amendola instead. But with Amendola out the past three games, they’ve needed Edelman more than ever before. He has delivered. Neat story. As I look at the Bengals, one question that keeps cropping up is whether Dalton is that franchise guy to build around. What have you seen from him in that regard?
Harvey: Two Ohio men doing work for the Patriots. I’m sure there will be some proud Buck -- er, Bearcats and Flashes, at Paul Brown Stadium this weekend.
With respect to Dalton, you know, I’m trying to stand in the guy’s corner as long as I can. But the more he has games like last Sunday’s, the tougher it gets to defend him. The thing is this: Dalton has had some really great games in his career. He has thrown for more than 300 yards five times, he has finally beaten the Steelers and Ravens and owns a win over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, too. As good as some of those highlights have been, though, he has had some dark days. Few have been as ugly as this past Sunday. He had a season-low 29.7 QBR. Brutal.
On the flip side, Brady looks as though he’s still adding to a Hall of Fame résumé. How much help has he gotten from New England’s rushing game this year? Does it appear the Patriots have a truly balanced scheme this year?
Reiss: The running game has been solid for three of the first four games of the season, the exception being the Sept. 12 win over the Jets (credit to a strong Jets run D that day). The interesting part has been how all the backs are contributing. It’s a true committee with Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden the top three at this time as Shane Vereen is on the injured reserve/designated to return list. The Patriots aren’t afraid to keep it on the ground, as we saw Sunday night when they ran it 10 straight times at one point. Overall, it’s a team that is playing some good complementary football the past two weeks -- offense, defense, special teams. I try not to overlook that third phase, where kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been particularly solid for them. So how do the Bengals look in that area?
Harvey: Last week’s injuries actually forced the Bengals to keep their most electric returner, Adam Jones, off the field in special teams situations. To make sure they had enough healthy corners, they made sure to relegate him to defense-only status. If the Bengals get a little healthier in the secondary, expect to see him back in return scenarios this week. Cincinnati’s punter, Kevin Huber, has been solid all year. Twice this season he has been recognized by ESPN Stats & Info’s Mark Simon as his Punter of the Week awards. Final question: You asked about Dalton. Now I’m asking about Brady. How much longer can he put up the kind of numbers that has made his career so special so far?
Reiss: There is no sign of decline. Part of what has been so impressive about his work this year is that he’s had to break in so many new targets. He said earlier in the year that it has required more patience, and he’s not generally the patient type, but he’s really like another coach. It’s impressive to watch, and because he takes such good care of himself, I wouldn’t count him out from playing past his 40th birthday. Obviously, there needs to be some good health-based fortune for that to happen. But the clock is ticking and one of the storylines that resonated in New England this year was if the team put enough weapons around him to maximize the special opportunity it has with a once-in-a-lifetime talent. It has been a good debate, but here they are at 4-0 and chugging along, with Brady the catalyst.