- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The Patriots bludgeoned a linebacker-depleted Bengals team with running back Sammy Morris, forcing Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to reach into his defensive line and secondary to fill linebacker spots.
"Spygate'' meant nothing in this game. Belichick didn't need hand signals, radio frequency hacking or counterintelligence. He saw a team short on linebackers and pounded it into submission. In boxing, the referee would have called for the technical knockout. Instead, ESPN showed a 2-hour, 52-minute pounding to the end.
The Bengals entered the game down three linebackers because of injury: Ahmad Brooks, Caleb Miller and Rashad Jeanty. Two plays into the game, linebacker Lemar Marshall blew out an Achilles tendon, ending his season. Late in the second quarter, outside linebacker Landon Johnson was poked in the eye, ending his night.
That left the Bengals with only two linebackers: Anthony Schlegel, who was claimed off the waiver wire Sept. 2, and Dhani Jones, who was signed last week. To compensate, Lewis had to alternate safety Chinedum Ndukwe or defensive end Robert Geathers as a third linebacker. The result was a disaster.
After spreading the field with three- and four-wide receiver sets in the opening drive, the Patriots mixed in some multiple-tight end formations that featured power runs. The surprises were the recipients of those runs, showing the depth of the Patriots' offensive arsenal.
Morris, the former Dolphin, filled in for an injured Laurence Maroney and rushed for 117 yards on 21 carries. Wide receiver Wes Welker, another former Dolphin, had a key 27-yard reverse on a shotgun play.
"He's such a powerful runner," Brady said of Morris. "He's deceptively fast and he's played great. He's really such a professional. We played against him for a bunch of years. He really explodes through tackles and it seems likes he's always falling forward, which is great for a back."
"I just had to read the offensive line and see how the defense was slanting," Morris said. "Then it was just making one cut and getting into the open field."
With the Patriots leading 3-0 on their third possession, Morris took a first-down handoff, bounced to the outside and cruised down the right sideline for a 49-yard run, punctuated by a stiff arm to safety Madieu Williams. That set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel, who was a designated tight end on the play.
The Bengals should have received a standing eight count. Vrabel taunted the fans by offering them the football and then pulling it back. It was that kind of night in The Jungle.
"I think we were moving the ball well offensively," Belichick said. "We were balanced. There are many things we can do better. Hopefully, we can build on this win with a short week, preparing for the Browns."
Ever the coach, that Bill Belichick. This game was a laugher, but he wasn't laughing. Neither were the Bengals, nor their fans. Too bad the Bengals couldn't pull a Roberto Duran and surrender with a "No mas, no mas" plea.
The knockout blow came in the second quarter. Morris ran eight consecutive running plays for 45 yards. Four plays into that assault, Johnson went down with the eye injury. The Bengals were done. Brady hit Moss with an acrobatic, toe-tapping touchdown play over cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
That opened a 17-7 lead.
"I just tried to throw it as high as I can," Brady said of his first of two touchdown passes to Moss. "I tried to throw it into the third row in the stands. He just jumped up and grabbed it. He has a great leaping ability and he's got a great timing on it. He has a great sense when the ball is coming."
The Patriots and Bengals are opposites. The Bengals don't have depth. They were down to two linebackers signed in the last month. Their backfield didn't have starter Rudi Johnson because of a hamstring injury. The three-receiver set was missing Tab Perry and the suspended Chris Henry.
On the flip side, the Patriots are overloaded with talent. Morris can replace Maroney and lead a 173-yard rushing effort. Welker, the third receiver behind Moss and Donte' Stallworth, embarrassed the Bengals' defense with his 27-yard reverse, which set up a 7-yard touchdown run by Morris in the third quarter.
"Wes is versatile," Morris said. "He's a really tough guy. Maybe he's a little undersized [5-foot-9, 185 pounds], but you don't expect him to be as strong as he is. He's a strong guy and has a lot of heart."
Belichick and general manager Scott Pioli watched Morris and Welker for years. The Patriots tried to sign Morris in 2004, but he opted to stay in Miami. This past offseason, they finally got him and Welker.
"It was a good fit," Morris said.
Moss worked the short passing game with nine catches for 102 yards and now has caught 32 of the 35 passes thrown to him. With so much depth, the Patriots look unstoppable. They are 4-0 and unchallenged.
The ending for the Bengals was ugly. On their final possession, Chad Johnson left the field with an ankle injury. T.J. Houshmandzadeh limped off the field with a leg injury. And Marvin Lewis ripped the team afterward, calling his players selfish.
Against the Patriots, they were helpless. The only time they stopped Morris was on a third-and-2 play at the beginning of the fourth quarter, holding him to 1 yard. As it turned out, the Bengals had 12 men on the field, resulting in a penalty.
It was the only time the Bengals had a personnel advantage on the field Monday night.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
1dEric D. Williams