Can Patriots remain undefeated?
Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break down the team's next game. This week, it's a Sunday road game against the Cincinnati Bengals (CBS, 1 p.m. ET).
Mike: We've hit the quarter mark of the NFL season and the Patriots are 4-0, just as you predicted. The Bengals, meanwhile, are 2-2. What do you make of the Bengals?
Tedy: My initial impression of the Bengals is that I put them in the same category as the Houston Texans -- a team that has made strides in the regular season to be considered a playoff participant, but at least in my eyes, once either of those teams get there they are outmatched. You just never know what Bengals team is going to show up. With all the talent they have, and the expectations they have, they can still have a game like they had against the Chicago Bears where they are ahead late and end up losing. Then they come back and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, before laying an egg against the Cleveland Browns. After Week 2, coach Marvin Lewis said, 'We're growing, but we have to grow up in a hurry.' The hurry is here because they are 2-2.
Mike: It looks as though it all comes back to the quarterback, Andy Dalton. They selected him in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, 35th overall, and there's a question if he's a true franchise quarterback.
Tedy: He's obviously not in the same class of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. He might be a guy who can win you championships, sure, but he won't be the main reason. The defense has to play a major role. So does the running game. Don't get me wrong, Dalton has shown flashes, but I need to see more from this guy.
Mike: You've talked a lot this week about Dalton being more willing to take some chances. Explain that a bit more.
Tedy: Sometimes you just have to put the football there and trust that your receiver is going to win. If a quarterback doesn't have that personality trait where "Yes, he's covered, but this is a time where I'm going to put it there anyway," you're always going to be average. There are plenty of times that those chances fail, but if you want to win, you have to give players like A.J. Green a chance to win the ballgame for you. When I look at Dalton, I see a quarterback who plays by the book. You show him a look, maybe double coverage, and he's not throwing it there. That's the right decision by the book, but when you think of quarterbacks such as Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, there are times when you have the receivers covered and they're still throwing it to give their receivers a chance, and throwing it to a spot where you as a defender still have to make a good play. With Dalton, I don't see that and that's one of the reasons I have some doubts on this Bengals team.
Mike: Based on Sunday's 17-6 loss to the Browns, I made the comparison that the Bengals remind me a little of the Arizona Cardinals teams with Larry Fitzgerald in the sense that they have a top wide receiver, but if the quarterback struggles to get him the ball his impact is negated. Of course, that top receiver is A.J. Green.
Tedy: In my mind, he's a top-three receiver in the NFL. These are the new-age receivers, the non-divas -- Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, A.J. Green. They're leading the way. Green may be better than Jones because of what he does when he's in the air. Jones is more powerful as a runner and maybe a little stronger, but Green is longer and I'd say he's more acrobatic. This is a game where Dalton should feel good about just putting it up there, especially because the Patriots have been losing some jump-ball type of situations. When Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan finally decided to turn it loose last week, even when Jones was covered, you saw one play where Jones still made the catch. I'm not sure why Ryan waited so long to try that. If Dalton waits that long, the Bengals will probably come out with an L in this game.
Mike: Another thing they want to try to do is get their running game going. Former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis is their pounder and rookie Giovani Bernard is the faster, quicker option. Together they make a nice one-two punch.
Tedy: I don't know how you don't attack the interior of the Patriots defense after the loss of Vince Wilfork. I think you have to recognize what type of scheme Bill Belichick will come up with in the first series -- will he use Joe Vellano at defensive tackle, will he use Chris Jones? Do they line up in a 3-4 and just send Brandon Spikes in running-down situational plays, almost as a defensive lineman into the line of scrimmage. With A.J. Green on the outside and the running game on the inside, it's a good combination for the Bengals. Green-Ellis is that downhill-type runner who can exploit the loss of Wilfork. This defense knows how hard he runs, the lower-body strength he has, the balance and how he can turn a 2-yard run into a 4- or 5-yard gain just based on his strength, balance and how he runs with forward lean. And Bernard is the change-of-pace running back, but he can also hit the hole or take it outside.
Mike: You made the point earlier in the week that these situations challenge a coaching staff on both sides. The Patriots have to come up with something to account for the loss of Wilfork. Also, how much do the Bengals tailor what they do to hit at a potential weakness?
Tedy: We're going to see how good of a coach Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is this week. Does he come up with scheme runs? Does he use Green-Ellis in between the tackles to exploit the loss of Wilfork between the tackles? Does he challenge Dalton to put it up to one of the best receivers in the league even if he's double-covered? The Patriots' coverage will be similar to last week, with a heavy focus on Green. What does Gruden come up with counteract that? As a player, these types of weeks stood out to me with the Patriots. You hear all week about a big injury, people start doubting you, and you were always curious to see what type of scheme Belichick would come up with to counteract it. These are the weeks when players can get motivated by the creativity of Belichick.
Mike: Speaking of coaches, one storyline is that this is a matchup of the two head coaches who have been with their teams the longest -- Belichick (14 years) and Marvin Lewis (11). But while there is experience and continuity on the sideline, the Patriots don't have that at defensive tackle. In the locker room this week, there was a lot of attention given to rookies Vellano and Chris Jones. The Patriots have veteran Tommy Kelly, but they will have to rely on the rookies to help fill the Wilfork void. I also would expect either rookie A.J. Francis or first-year player Marcus Forston to be promoted from the practice squad at defensive tackle.
Tedy: With a healthy Wilfork, you wouldn't be overwhelmed by this offensive line. It's a solid line, with tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, guards Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler and center Kyle Cook. But you take Wilfork out of the equation and they now have that much more of an advantage on you. I look at Kelly, he's probably going to be leaned on to play a higher percentage of snaps. When that happens, his technique can become a bit sloppy. We'll see how his conditioning is for a player who hasn't played this amount of snaps all year.
Mike: Good point, Tedy. Kelly's snap counts have been 35, 46, 40 and 59, so we saw a good increase in the game that Wilfork left with the Achilles injury. The Bengals run the majority of plays in their two-tight end package with first-round picks Jermaine Gresham (2010) and Tyler Eifert (2013), so we'll see how the Patriots decide to match up with that -- with a base or sub package.
Tedy: Another thing to watch for is the potential of receiver Mohamed Sanu in the Wildcat. I've seen him throw the ball as a Wildcat quarterback.
Mike: Let's get to the Bengals defense and it starts at the line of scrimmage.
Tedy: With Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, they have two solid players on the inside. Then you have Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap at end and there is a lot of money invested in that defensive line. It's the best defensive line the Patriots will face so far. Atkins is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the game.
Mike: Belichick said that if the 2010 draft was held again, Atkins might be the first overall pick. He was a fourth-rounder that year.
Tedy: I can see Patriots guard Logan Mankins coming out with an attitude this week. These were the types of weeks when Coach Belichick would be talking about Atkins all week. He'd walk by you in the stretch line and be talking about Atkins, saying, 'Did you see him on the film? Did you see that rush he had?' He knows that matchup is critical and he wants to make sure one of his key guys is ready to go. He knows Mankins is a tone-setter and wants to make sure Atkins doesn't ruin the game.
Mike: They play a 4-3 and coordinator Mike Zimmer is respected as one of the better defensive coaches in the NFL. The linebackers, in coverage, could be a liability.
Tedy: I really like Vontaze Burfict. He has made plays all over the field. He had some questions about his character coming out of Arizona State, but watching on film, he has been all over the place -- running game, passing game. I really like him. Rey Maualuga is a solid player who has to make better decisions at times and I haven't seen James Harrison that much. He looks more like a situational player now.
Mike: The defensive backfield has some injury concerns, which we'll have to monitor leading up to kickoff, with starting cornerback Leon Hall (hamstring) not playing in Week 4 and safety Reggie Nelson (hamstring) also hobbled.
Tedy: Sometimes they'll bring safety Taylor Mays in to play down in the box. He's big and physical and has better range than a linebacker. I just think it comes down to consistency with this defense. There's plenty of talent.
Mike: With the Patriots offense finding its rhythm, and the defense having been a strong point through four weeks, I'm not sure the Bengals will have enough firepower to keep pace. The potential return of Danny Amendola, and possibly Rob Gronkowski, should further help New England. Patriots 24, Bengals 20.
Tedy: Let's not underestimate the best unit of the New England Patriots, the offensive line. This Bengals defense does pose a threat up front, but I think Ryan "Wendy" Wendell and the gang will have a solid performance and my doubts of Andy Dalton will continue. Patriots 31 Bengals 23