What to Watch For: Patriots at Bengals
Friday, October 04, 2013
There are five unbeaten teams left in the NFL through four weeks. Expectations before the season were that the Patriots could very well be one of those.
It just so happens, they are. But the road traveled to 4-0 for the first time since 2007 is different than first imagined, thanks to the reality of youth and relative inexperience in key places. Add to this a mixture of intrigue and possible indecision concerning injuries and the availability of some players...it makes getting to this point a rather remarkable accomplishment.
But still, this is New England. Living up to expectations is, well...expected.
The next big test comes Sunday on the road at Cincinnati...a team that has talent and a healthy dose of high expectations coming into this year themselves. Following a 10-6 season a year ago, reaching the playoffs as a Wild Card team...and a summer of exposure on HBO's "Hard Knocks" series with a 3-1 pre-season mark...those expectations have climbed back into uncharted territory in southern Ohio. The primary complaint from fans and long time observers, however, comes from a past inability to handle the winning - and coach Marvin Lewis isn't immune from the criticism.
Offensively, expectations haven't really materialized for quarterback Andy Dalton. Is he a franchise-type of leader, or is he in over his head? He replaced a pretty good QB in Carson Palmer, who arguably didn't have the supporting cast Dalton now has. WR A.J. Green is big, talented...but he can't do much if Dalton doesn't get him the ball. The running game, featuring ex-Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovani Bernard, has shown potential even if the offense hasn't emphasized it.
On the flip side, former Steeler LB James Harrison seems to be living up to at least some of the expectations placed upon his large shoulders, after making the move from Pittsburgh and transitioning as an outside player in a 3-4 defense to a 4-3. Maybe defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has had something to do with that, slowly building expectations of his own over the past few seasons. Zimmer's "D" last season was 6th in the NFL in total yards allowed, 8th in points allowed.
So, the Bengals have their own expectations to live up to. You can make the argument the Patriots have lived up to theirs, despite the troubles, more so than Cincinnati. The Bengals are at home, they were embarrassed last week in a 17-6 loss to Cleveland, and their fans are undoubtedly anxious with a marquee team in town.
Despite the circumstances, expectations rarely change.
Who's On First?
With a participation report (i.e. injury report) featuring a staggering 18 players this week, it might be best to ask "who's gonna play?" The Patriots are famous for tweaking the nose of NFL poo-bahs by listing every scratch, bump and bruise, and if it confuses the opposition, so be it. Most importantly, if TE Rob Gronkowski and/or WR Danny Amendola play this week, Tom Brady's options on offense just about doubled. And made the job of the Bengals' defense that much more difficult. NT Vince Wilfork won't play, put on injured reserve after suffering an achilles injury against Atlanta. The next in line - probably rookie free agent Joe Vellano - steps into the rather large void.
Defend the middle
Because Vellano (and company) move into Wilfork's spot, it shouldn't take rocket science to figure out Cincinnati will test the Patriots "D" up the middle. Green-Ellis is familiar, Bernard isn't as much...and also appears to be an outside threat. LB Brandon Spikes, rendered as an afterthought in nickle situations, could get his chance to shine if he can help stuff the middle. Play-action could also be big here, and Aqib Talib's ability to cover 6-4 WR A.J. Green will also be tested. In fact, that might be the matchup of the day to watch unfold.
Give us a sign
Maybe the slight-of-hand played with the lengthy injury report this week, coupled with the release this week of rookie TE Zach Sudfeld, indicates Gronk finally goes this week. Or, the signing of oft-injured WR Austin Collie indicates Amendola isn't ready, and injuries to Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins are potentially worse than originally feared. No one knows the real answers, outside of Bill Belichick, perhaps. The Patriots may be relying on some confusion on the part of the Bengals...because otherwise, Cincinnati is pretty good.