Patriots face stiff test against Bengals
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's season-opening contest against the Bengals at Gillette Stadium (1 p.m.):
Mike: Welcome back for another year, Tedy. The Patriots have won six straight season openers, which is the second longest streak in the NFL behind the Steelers (7). It's going to be a real big challenge to keep that streak alive because this Bengals team looks strong to me. I see it as a field-goal game in either direction.
Tedy: I believe this is a team the Patriots should be taking seriously. I think this team wins the AFC North. They won it last year, sweeping the division, and the reason they did that is that they are a physically tough team. They might have a couple of drama queens on the outside in receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, but I see them working for each other. They need each other to reach that goal of winning a championship. This isn't like last year's opener for the Patriots, against the Buffalo Bills, when you know you're not going to lose. Even when the Bills looked like they could beat you, you knew they'd find a way to lose the game, like they did when they fumbled the kickoff late in the fourth quarter. I don't think the Cincinnati Bengals will make those mistakes.
Patriots offense vs. Bengals defense
Mike: Let's start with the matchup of the Patriots' offense against the Bengals' defense. This is an attacking unit that plays a 4-3 alignment. They have two highly touted cornerbacks in former first-round draft picks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, although from those who have watched the Bengals, they have apparently struggled a bit in the preseason.
Tedy: Although they had some struggles, they are still one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL, and it's rare to see a 1-2 combination like that. They do a great job covering opponents' wide receivers. I also think the Bengals' front seven is solid, and that's something for the Patriots to be concerned with. Second-year linebacker Rey Maualuga, out of Southern Cal, showed promise last year. Then you look across the front line and see players like Domata Peko, Jonathan Fanene, Robert Geathers, Tank Johnson and Antwan Odom. Last year, Odom had eight sacks in six games before tearing his Achilles. He's healthy and hungry and the Patriots will have to account for him in pass protection.
Mike: Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had that unit playing at a high level last season. I still see weaknesses. I think the safeties, particularly Roy Williams, could have some trouble in pass coverage, and I want to see how the linebackers fare in pass coverage against the Patriots' backs and tight ends. With the Patriots' variety of weapons, I think the Bengals have some issues when it comes to matching up. How would you attack them?
Tedy: I think there is only one way the Patriots can attack teams right now. I don't see the running game as being developed, where they can run the ball on this team consistently. This is a team that passes to set up the run, so this will be about winning one-on-one matchups -- Randy Moss and Wes Welker against Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph. How do the receivers do against those cornerbacks? That's the key to the game. And then with those cornerbacks doing a good job in coverage, you figure Tom Brady is going to be forced to go away from his first and second reads, so the tight ends could play a big part in this game.
Mike: Maybe I'm too optimistic, Tedy, but I'm not as down on the Patriots' running game. I thought the first two preseason games were encouraging and they looked like a good situational running team to me, particularly in short-yardage situations. We know they won't be ground and pound, but I could envision 15 solid carries from Fred Taylor, and another 10 from Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk, and possibly seeing some productive results. Yet I agree that in the end, it will be about the pass, and this offensive gets its first big test without Logan Mankins.
Tedy: It's a stiff test. The Bengals have a lot of good players on the defensive line and this is an offensive line that still has some question marks without Mankins and Kaczur. The loss of Mankins has had a trickle-down effect on this line.
Mike: We should also touch on quarterback Tom Brady and his role in this game. He had the scary car accident Thursday morning but still was out at practice. First and foremost, you just hope that everyone is OK in situations like that. From a football perspective, though, this is another obstacle to overcome.
Tedy: The Patriots have had a lot of non-football related issues this week unfortunately centered around the starting quarterback. It sounds good in that everybody is OK with the car accident, but it's still something that takes you away from your focus. I've been in that locker room when the team had to push things aside, no matter what they are, as there is such a solid focus that you need to have when preparing for this week. Veteran players can handle that, but how do the younger players respond? Can they focus and realize that all this drama doesn't concern them? You just have to disregard all that. It's another test for these younger players to focus on what's important -- on the field, not what's happening off it.
Patriots defense vs. Bengals offense
Mike: Now let's flip it, Tedy, and look at the Patriots' defense against the Bengals' offense. Last year, the Bengals looked like a one-dimensional offense late in the year. But when I look at them in the preseason to this point, I see balance. They can run it. They can throw it, too.
Tedy: After sweeping the AFC North last year, it looks like all the Bengals did was get better. At tight end. At receiver. They've kept continuity with the running game with a strong running back in Cedric Benson, and an offensive line that is underrated. I remember going up against right guard Bobbie Williams when we played the Bengals. He is one of those big-bodied guys who will engulf you, and that's the attitude of what their offensive line will try to do. They'll grab and hold until that running back gets by, figuring officials won't call holding every play, and that's a technique a lot of offensive linemen use in the NFL nowadays because it's harder and harder to dominate along the line of scrimmage with the strength of defenders in the front seven. So can Jerod Mayo and the rest of the front seven shed blockers? If Brandon Spikes is the starter next to Mayo, he'll have to learn very fast that this isn't college anymore. You can't always run through a body anymore, knock him back and make a tackle. They're strong too, and they'll be grabbing you, so after initial contact, can you get off the block and make plays while lineman are hanging on to you.
Tedy: It will be a baptism by fire for McCourty. Butler played last year with the five starts, but this is an opening game, and that's a new experience for him as a starter. Emotions will be high and it will be a learning experience for both of them, going against veteran receivers like T.O. and Ochocinco, who know a few tricks of the trade from their time in the league. You think about those receivers and their social media exploits, with Twitter and all that, but they actually didn't do much trash talking on the field when we played in the past. They're more worried about business. Of the two, it's more likely that Ochocinco would be trash talking, maybe during timeouts and from the huddle.
Mike: I've always been a believer in Carson Palmer. If we were to put a list together of the top starting quarterbacks in the NFL, he'd be in the top half. Maybe not the top 10, but definitely in the top half. Where would you put him?
Tedy: I would say middle of the pack also. There are a lot of good quarterbacks in the league and until Carson Palmer proves himself in the playoffs, then he could be elevated to a higher ranking. When we would play Carson Palmer, we'd always try to disguise our coverages. We felt like he couldn't figure them out. So we'd overload coverage to the left side, and then after the snap, we'd switch it, and he'd have problems with that. We'd disguise things and you could see the confusion on his face. I remember we'd be on the bus, talking to ourselves, saying 'I still don't think he's figured it out yet.' So one question is whether he's matured with that. I think we could see some of the same concepts defensively from the Patriots in this game, because Coach Belichick is going to look at the last time he went up against a quarterback and see what worked.
Mike: Tedy, can the Patriots really get that creative with a younger defense, and so many new parts?
Tedy: That's a good point and how much they do in that area will be reflected in the level of trust that Coach Belichick has with their mental capacity to handle intricate coverage disguises. He'll put in the game plan and see if they can execute it on the field, and if he doesn't like what he sees, he'll make it more vanilla over the course of the week. That's why those practices on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are so important.
Mike: One point that shouldn't be overlooked is that the Patriots and Bengals were two of the best teams in the preseason in the return game. So there could be some fireworks there. From a big-picture standpoint, I'm curious if there is anything that stands out to you as to why the Patriots have had such success in season openers. The last loss was in 2003, that tough game in Buffalo.
Tedy: Most of all, I think the players have been coached very well. They have been coached to keep their focus within a game and no matter what the situation is, to worry about the single play at hand. It might be an offensive third-down conversion. Or stopping the offense on a critical third-down play. Kickoff coverage. Maybe they needed a turnover to win a game and they did that. I think it's a credit to the coaching staff of not letting the emotion of the season kicking off get to them.
Mike: Let's also pick an X-factor in the game, a matchup that stands out to you. Mine is how the Patriots defend rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham, and I expect Patrick Chung to play a considerable role in that regard.
Tedy: I'm going to lock in on the Bengals' Antwan Odom, a top pass rusher. He's a highly skilled defensive end who has been out of football for almost a year and he'll be excited to be back and continue his pace of last year. That's a tough assignment for Patriots left tackle Matt Light.
Mike: As for a prediction, I like a high-scoring game. I see the Patriots being able to move the ball on the Bengals and expect the offense to come out firing on all cylinders, especially through the air. But I also see some struggles for the defense. So let's go 31, 28 Patriots.
Tedy: I picked the Bengals already on a segment that we taped for ESPNBoston.com. I'd like to pick the Patriots based on their past success in openers, but based on what we've seen in the preseason and the improvements that the Bengals have made, I think the Bengals will be able to squeak it out by a field goal, even though they are coming into Foxborough. I remember the last time the Patriots played on this field, the Baltimore Ravens came in and manhandled them. I still have that image in my head. So until they prove they can bounce back and some of those young players show they are ready, I'll go with the veteran team in Cincinnati, 24-21.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.
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