Sunday night’s game between the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium has intrigue on both sides.
Are the efficient, attacking Bengals, who at 3-0 have been as impressive as any team through the first quarter of the season, for real?
And will the 2-2 Patriots, who are reeling after an embarrassing 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night, turn in a second straight dud on national television that will elevate the heightened panic level in New England that much more?
ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Coley Harvey (Bengals) break it down:
Reiss: Coley, the Bengals are coming off their bye and the Patriots have the short week after the "Monday Night Football" meltdown. How fair is it to say this game is a measuring stick for the Bengals, or are they more past that at this point?
Harvey: Personally, Mike, I think it’s fair to call this a measuring stick type of game for the Bengals. If you ask the players and coaches, though, they’ll give you a far different answer. As defensive end Wallace Gilberry was quick to put it earlier this week: “There are still 13 games to play, man.” Indeed, it’s early, and indeed there are other games on the schedule that certainly will let the Bengals know how good they are, but this is a good early test. Not only are they playing a Patriots team desperate to prove that last Monday at Kansas City was a fluke -- Gilberry was among those in Cincinnati’s locker room who dismissed the notion that the blowout was a precursor to something bigger for New England -- but the Bengals also are facing a team that defends its home turf quite well. Like the Bengals, the Patriots are on a double-digit home winning streak. Still, having said all of that, I contend that a Bengals win inside what should be a hostile Gillette Stadium would prove that they are worthy of the No. 1 Power Ranking that several others and I have been quick to bestow upon them since they stomped Tennessee to improve to 3-0 in Week 3. A win also would prove that Andy Dalton, a quarterback who has lost four of six career regular-season games in prime time, is better this season than he has been in years past.
The Patriots don’t often crumble on a big stage the way they did Monday night in Kansas City. As someone who has been around these guys for a while, what is it about this team, Mike, that could convince you they respond -- even on a short week -- with a much more favorable outcome in Sunday's game?
Reiss: The leadership in the locker room would be the main thing, Coley. They have some good men in that room, starting with quarterback Tom Brady, and that leadership helped them recover from a disappointing Week 1 loss at Miami. I sensed from talking to players this week that they were disgusted with their performance Monday, starting with a lack of energy and emotion from the get-go. You can’t go into that frenzied environment that way and think that's acceptable. I expect them to play with greater passion on Sunday night. Whether that will be good enough, or if it's more of a talent issue, we'll find out.
The Bengals released former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis at the end of the preseason. Many in New England would probably be interested to know what led to that and how the team’s offense has taken shape in his absence.
Harvey: All Patriots fans need to know about Green-Ellis’ release is the following date: May 9, 2014. That was the night the Bengals took running back Jeremy Hill with the 55th pick in the draft. Even though Bengals coaches staunchly defended Green-Ellis and said Hill’s selection had nothing to do with the veteran, the writing appeared on the wall for the Law Firm. His days were numbered. As soon as Hill started practicing in organized team activities and minicamp, it became clear that he was the future. He ran like a new Porsche off the showroom floor. Green-Ellis was remarkably slower and less agile, sputtering along like a 1985 jalopy with a sluggish transmission. When Green-Ellis got hurt near the end of the preseason and didn’t play in the last two games, it seemed likely that he would be cut. And then he was. Green-Ellis’ 3.4 yards per carry and lacking reliability with the football in his hands last season also had an adverse effect on his chances of staying with the team. After not fumbling once in New England, Green-Ellis fumbled five times in his two seasons with the Bengals.
I’m stunned I’m actually typing these words, but: The Patriots’ offense through four games ranks among the worst in the league in several categories. To me, it all seemed like premature conjecture this offseason when debates raged over whether Brady was getting over the hill. But it seems like the question does appear a legitimate one to pose: Have we seen the best of Brady?
Reiss: To play off your analogy, Coley, this offense is in need of a big-time tuneup. There are several issues, and Brady contributed to them on Monday with some poor decision-making. But my take after film study has been that Brady’s struggles are more a result of factors around him -- poor, inconsistent offensive line play and limited options in the passing game are tops on the list -- and I still believe that. Put Brady around different talent -- the Broncos', for example -- and I think we’d see markedly different results.
As for the defense that Brady faces Sunday night, what are the Bengals doing, and who are some of the key players making them so effective?
Harvey: It’s funny, some of my colleagues here in Cincinnati and I were joking about how you’re hard-pressed to find anyone who mentions Mike Zimmer’s name around Paul Brown Stadium these days. That’s not a knock on Zimmer, the current Vikings head coach who left his six-year post as the Bengals’ defensive coordinator in January. Instead it’s a credit to how well Paul Guenther has taught his scheme to his players. As good as the Bengals were under Zimmer -- they ranked third in total defense last season -- they look even better under Guenther, even if the rankings are lower in most respects. There’s a modified bend-but-don’t break philosophy that has made them one of the better units so far this year. The Bengals may allow big yards on first and second down, but come third down, they largely buckle down and hold. They rank second in third-down defense. Guenther is the big key to the defense’s effectiveness, particularly because of how well he has taught his aggressive defense. He was in charge of blitz calls and third-down scheming when Zimmer was in charge. It’s evident that that was Guenther’s strength, too, because all the Bengals seemingly do on third down is blitz. As far as players, you have to acknowledge Gilberry and fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap for solid play, as well as the three veteran cornerbacks Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman, for keeping the unit afloat while linebacker Vontaze Burfict has struggled with concussion issues.
Despite allowing 41 points this week, New England’s defense has been rather strong all season. The unit has given up nine or fewer points twice this year, and ranks in the top 5 in yards per game allowed, passing yards per game allowed and opposing quarterbacks’ QBR. Where does the Patriots’ best pressure appear to come, Mike? I ask because Dalton has been much better about handling it this year as opposed to years' past.
Reiss: The defense has been way too inconsistent, specifically against the run. Meanwhile, the pressure has been nonexistent for long stretches, which is a big concern. Chandler Jones is their best pass-rusher at right defensive end, and he has a right shoulder injury suffered in the second quarter Monday night that bears monitoring. They’ve been effective blitzing up the middle at times with linebacker Jerod Mayo, but I wouldn’t call them a pressure-based defense. In a game like this, where Dalton gets the ball out so quickly, it will be interesting to see how many pressure-based calls the Patriots make. My educated guess would be they are minimal.