- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Ten areas that project to be crucial in Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals:
1. Stopping Cedric Benson and the run. The Patriots figure to be in their 3-4 alignment, with new starters at left defensive end (Gerard Warren), right defensive end (Mike Wright), inside linebacker (Brandon Spikes) and left outside linebacker (projected to be Rob Ninkovich). That changes the "fits" in the run game, which has to be a concern for the Patriots given the Bengals' bigger offensive line and success running the ball.
2. Young corners vs. Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. Rookie Devin McCourty and second-year player Darius Butler are expected to start, and it's a tough assignment in lining up against veterans Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. If the Patriots can consistently generate a pass rush -- which hasn't been a strong suit -- it would be a big help as they should be expecting the Bengals to take some shots down the field.
3. Pass protection in spread formations. With a full complement of weapons to utilize in the passing game, the Patriots figure to spread the field in an attempt to challenge players like Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga and safety Roy Williams, who are best cast as run-defenders. As is always the case, whenever a team goes with a spread look, it lessens the number of players staying in to protect, and that highlights the importance of keeping quarterback Tom Brady's jersey clean.
4. Wes Welker's return to action. Arguably the top question facing the team at the start of training camp was when Wes Welker might be ready to return to the field from early February surgery to repair his torn left ACL. Stunningly, it is now off the radar because Welker isn't even on the injury report. When it's third down and the Patriots need to move the sticks, Welker has traditionally been Tom Brady's favorite target.
5. Bengals corners vs. Randy Moss, Welker & Co. Although they weren't as consistent as expected during the preseason, Bengals cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph are still a formidable duo. Opposing wide receivers totaled just nine receiving touchdowns against the Bengals last season, so Moss, Welker and the others face a significant challenge in crossing the goal-line.
6. Safety play and matching up against Jermaine Gresham. The Bengals' rookie tight end creates some matchup issues, making it harder to play with two safeties protecting the deep half of the field. Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather played a team-high 95 percent of the snaps last season, but based on recent practices, it wouldn't be surprising if his action is limited in favor of a James Sanders/Patrick Chung tandem on Sunday.
7. Tight end Rob Gronkowski in the red zone. The Patriots' second-round draft choice tied for the NFL lead with four touchdowns in the preseason and has been a primary target for quarterback Tom Brady in the red zone. At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, his presence becomes that much more important when the space gets tight inside the 20.
8. Running back Fred Taylor and first-down gains. Because of the Bengals' attacking, penetrating style of defense, staying out of long-yardage situations takes on added importance. That's why Taylor's ability to avoid negative runs on early downs will be important against a well-distributed defensive line that is sturdy across the board.
9. Kickoff and punt return game. Both teams were excellent in the preseason. In a game that projects to be close, likely coming down to the critical situations in the fourth quarter, a big return that shifts field position could very well be the difference. The Patriots are counting on second-year receiver Brandon Tate in that role. Bengals punter Kevin Huber had a strong preseason, leading the AFC in net average (41.2).
10. Exploiting Bengals' pass protection. This will be one of the biggest offensive lines the Patriots face this season, but it's also a unit that has struggled at times in pass protection. Outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain and Rob Ninkovich, and defensive lineman Mike Wright should have opportunities to pressure quarterback Carson Palmer, which will be important to help out a young secondary.
A look at 10 crucial areas to watch in Patriots vs. Bengals on Sunday.