When the Patriots run
The ability of New England’s offensive line to transform itself into a smashmouth unit has been impressive. This bunch’s No. 1 priority always will be to keep Tom Brady upright, but it’s clear they’re adept at — and enjoy — firing off the ball and leaning into defenders. What’s even more impressive is that Dante Scarnecchia’s charges don’t have the luxury of getting used to one runner’s style. Instead, they have had to adapt to the nuances of several backs. Leading the block party, as always, is mega-tough left guard Logan Mankins. The 6-foot-4-inch, 310-pound lumberjack (that’s him in the Brawny ads, right?) is extremely aggressive and athletic. He may hit you early or he may hit you late, but he will hit you. Stevan Ridley is the smoothest and most polished back, but he is out with a knee injury. Brandon Bolden (5-11, 215) flashes speed and power and will break tackles. He can be too aggressive and at times will run into his blockers. Bolden always appears one step away from breaking a long one. LeGarrette Blount is the 6-foot, 241-pound closer. The big bruiser has excellent vision and deceptive speed. When he’s fresh, he will wear you out. The Bengals are impressive up front with exceptional tackles Geno Atkins (he’s swift and powerful) and Domata Peko (he’s big and powerful). Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is instinctive and specializes in big hits.
Cincinnati defense: 99.0 (t-11th)
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady and his receiving corps are coming off their best performance of the season and, again, a lot of the credit goes to the offensive line, which consistently provided Brady with a clean and comfortable pocket against Atlanta. Left tackle Nate Solder, a 6-foot-8-inch, 319-pound mountain of a man, was outstanding in pass protection. Often overlooked, Solder is light on his feet and athletic. He has gained muscle and strength over the last three years and can, at times, be dominant. He needs to be front and center to counteract pass rushers Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Domata Peko. Last Sunday night, Brady read through his progressions and delivered accurate, catchable balls. His young pups let him down a few times but they’re clearly getting more and more comfortable; that fade route to Kenbrell Thompkins in the end zone was picture-perfect. Thompkins has the tools (size, speed, and strength) to be a force. What he lacks is consistency, but that will come playing with Brady. Fellow rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are still finding their way, but it was encouraging that Boyce got on board last week. Julian Edelman continues to be Brady’s most reliable target. When Rob Gronkowski returns, he instantly upgrades this receiving corps (duh). The Bengals have solid corners in Terence Newman (he can fly) and Leon Hall (he’s a ballhawk, but is banged up). Safeties George Iloka (he’s big, versatile, and rangy) and Reggie Nelson (he has good cover skills) are above average.
When the Bengals run
Giovani Bernard is one of the NFL’s future stars. As it is, the 5-foot-8-inch, 202-pound rookie is still pretty darned good. An elusive and powerful runner (don’t let his size fool you), Bernard has the quicks to be a game-changer on any play. Blessed with excellent instincts and vision, Bernard explodes to the hole and has every juke and jive in the book. He’s short and he runs low and with great balance. He won’t break a ton of tackles, but it will take more than a glancing blow to knock him down. Bernard shares the backfield with old favorite BenJarvus Green-Ellis. A plodding, north-south runner, the 5-11, 224-pound Green-Ellis works hard for every yard he gains. Green-Ellis is a one-cut runner who attacks the line of scrimmage with power. He doesn’t always find a crease, but when he does reach the second level, he will thunder into linebackers and safeties. Center Kyle Cook is a wily widebody who works hard, while guards Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler are battlers. There’s a rather larger hole in the middle of New England’s defense — literally and figuratively — with Vince Wilfork out. Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones will help fill that hole. Vellano (6-2, 300) is quicker than he looks and gives great effort. Jones (6-1, 309) is meaty and strong. They need to occupy bodies to allow active linebackers Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, and Brandon Spikes to fill lanes and inflict damage.
When the Bengals pass
Andy Dalton is one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the league. A 6-foot-2-inch, 215-pounder who threw for a billion yards running a zone-read offense at TCU, he has adjusted nicely to a pro offense and taking snaps under center. Dalton makes quick decisions, has a quick release, and is very accurate with short and intermediate passes. He has more zip than strength, and his deep balls tend to sail. He’s also the rare signal-caller whose hair matches his uniform. Dalton has a nice group of receivers. A.J. Green (6-4, 211) has a potent combination of size, swiftness, and surliness. Green will fight through press coverage and stay in his routes. He can turn on a dime and snags the ball with his strong hands; he’s not a body catcher. He has good ups and really long arms. Green will win most jump balls (unless LeBron James is covering him). He’s fun to watch after the catch and is a willing downfield blocker. Mohamed Sanu (6-1, 211) is a lanky receiver with wiry strength to fight for the ball and break tackles. Marvin Jones and Dane Sanzenbacher are solid but aren’t targeted often. Jermaine Gresham is one of the most productive tight ends in the business. He has exceptional size (6-6, 261) and athleticism. He’s a good in-line blocker, but he does his best work with the ball in his hands. He’s a reliable target and has both the moves to avoid tackles and the strength to run over defenders. He’s like a locomotive in the open field. Rookie Tyler Eifert will soon be among the game’s elite tight ends.
Bengals’ key player: Tyler Eifert
The rookie tight end gets to fly under the radar because Jermaine Gresham commands so much of a defense’s attention. The 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pounder has a tight end’s body and mentality, but he has the athleticism to line up as a receiver.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With size, strength, and superior hands. Eifert is very athletic and will glide through traffic and work the seam to perfection (think Gronk). Oh, and he’s already a really good blocker (think Gronk).
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: With a lot of contact. Eifert is still a little lean, so banging him around at the line of scrimmage will delay him from getting to the open field quickly where he can run wild.
BENGALS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Attack mode: Run at the heart of the Patriots’ defense, which is missing its heart and soul with Vince Wilfork out. Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have to attack this weakness.
2. Rush hour: Ultra-tough defenders James Harrison, Vontaze Burfict, and Geno Atkins have to collapse the pocket quickly. They’ve seen the film. They know what Tom Brady does when he’s comfortable.
3. Green party: Andy Dalton has to get A.J. Green involved early. If he’s engaged from the outset, he is a demon. When he’s not the focal point, he can appear uninterested.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. No letdowns: Marching into the Georgia Dome and smacking around a good Falcons team was impressive. It’ll take a similar — or better — effort Sunday in the Jungle.
2.Gang mentality: It’s going to take a village to replace Vince Wilfork. Holding firm at the point of attack and preventing the backs from sneaking through the cracks is important.
3.Double coverage: Geno Atkins is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. It’s imperative to use multiple bodies to consistently slam the big fella and wear him down — and out.