In most NFL games, the better quarterback/offensive coordinator combination wins out.
This past Sunday in Cincinnati, that wasn’t Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has taken a lot of flak from his fan base this season for poor performance, but a review of the coaches’ film shows that he was efficient and effective in their 13-6 win over the Patriots, and that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden deserves a lot of the credit.
Gruden’s game plan was simple: Minimize Dalton’s impact, and give him as many high-percentage throws as possible. The Bengals called five straight runs to open the game, and overall called 37 runs to 33 passes, rushing for 162 yards.
Dalton had the early hiccup with the red zone interception to Brandon Spikes, but overall he completed 20 of 27 passes for 212 yards and made no other big mistakes. Of his 33 dropbacks, 15 were plays with quick, designed reads — short slants and swings and plays on which Dalton just had to get the ball out quickly. He also checked down four times, smartly taking positive yards instead of trying for something big and risky.
Dalton threw exactly one pass more than 20 yards in the air — a fade to Marvin Jones for 28 yards on third and 15, a crucial play on the Bengals’ 94-yard touchdown drive. And Dalton made his money on the two most important downs; he was 10 for 12 for 100 yards on first down, and 7 for 9 for 87 yards on third down.
Brady and McDaniels, meanwhile, couldn’t figure out how to get the ball in the red zone, let alone the end zone, and Brady was out of rhythm with his receivers for much of the game. Brady certainly had his share of good throws, and the timing of the monsoon-like conditions during the final drive was unfortunate. But he was hesitant in the pocket for much of the day and uncharacteristically inaccurate with some of his passes.
His teammates didn’t help matters by dropping five passes.
A review of the game after watching the film:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ The Bengals’ four-man rush certainly gave Brady happy feet. He had time to throw on Vontaze Burfict’s sack in the third quarter, and had two receivers open but couldn’t pull the trigger. Most of the damage was done by the front four, as we counted only 13 blitzes on Brady’s 42 dropbacks (30.1 percent).
His accuracy also was off; if his throw to Danny Amendola is not behind the receiver, Amendola can walk into the end zone in the fourth quarter instead of being tagged down at the 1.
Brady had a couple of great throws to Amendola and Julian Edelman in tight coverage over the middle. But he also was stubborn about settling for his check-down receiver, such as when he forced an incomplete pass to Edelman instead of hitting fullback James Develin, who was standing wide open in front of him.
Brady was 5 of 17 for 60 yards and an interception on first down (17.3 passer rating), and 5 of 9 for 33 yards and three sacks on third down. The Patriots ran 63 plays on offense, but just four inside the red zone.
■ The Patriots tried to spread out the Bengals, but it didn’t work so well. We counted 26 plays out of 60 with a three-wide receiver set, and 24 plays with four wide receivers. Amendola played 39 snaps in his return from a groin injury.
■ The dropped screen pass by Brandon Bolden was absolutely a killer. He had three blockers in front of him and a potential 66-yard touchdown. And someone was not on the same page late in the fourth quarter when Brady threw a deep corner ball but Aaron Dobson ran a deep post. Dobson was wide open streaking down the middle, but we’ll guess that Brady was in the right on this one.
■ Defensive end Carlos Dunlap didn’t record one of the Bengals’ four sacks, but he was disruptive in the run game (five tackles and a forced fumble) and controlled Sebastian Vollmer for much of the game. And safety Chris Crocker did surprisingly well in coverage against Amendola and Edelman; he finished with seven tackles (two for loss), two passes defended, and should have been credited with a sack. Amendola had a nice sideline catch against safety Taylor Mays, and I’m wondering why the Patriots didn’t try to exploit that matchup more.
■ The Patriots completed just 1 of 10 play-action passes (the 53-yarder to Dobson) and were sacked twice. The Bengals did their homework. Dobson, meanwhile, would have scored a touchdown on that play if he had followed his blocking up the sideline instead of cutting back toward the middle.
■ Counted two drops for Amendola and one each for Bolden, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Michael Hoomanawanui, though the throws weren’t always perfect.
When the Bengals had the ball . . .
■ In their first game without Vince Wilfork, the Patriots generally played a traditional 3-4 front in obvious running downs, with rookie Joe Vellano at nose tackle, Tommy Kelly at left defensive end, Chandler Jones at right defensive end, and Rob Ninkovich and Dont’a Hightower at outside linebacker. In passing situations, Kelly kicked in to defensive tackle and Ninkovich moved down to defensive end.
Vellano and fellow rookie Chris Jones got pushed around a bit in the run game, as the Bengals rushed 23 times for 118 yards up the middle (5.13-yard average). Jones did have a nice game rushing the passer, beating Andre Smith badly for a sack.
■ Brandon Spikes played only six snaps against Atlanta as the Patriots defense went smaller and quicker, but he played 58 of 70 snaps Sunday and was an absolute beast. He terrorized the A-gap all game, finishing with 12 total tackles (two for loss) and a whopping eight stops in the run game. He tossed around center Kyle Cook like a rag doll (so did a few other Patriots) and did a great job of reading Dalton’s eyes in the red zone and stepping in front of Tyler Eifert for the interception (the first red zone interception of Dalton’s career).
Fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo also was outstanding in run coverage, finishing with seven stops.
The one nitpick is that Spikes and Mayo were so aggressive that they overran plays a couple of times, including on Gio Bernard’s 28-yard rush.
■ The Patriots mostly played man-to-man coverage, and Aqib Talib was spectacular at times against A.J. Green, making him a total nonfactor for the first 1½ quarters. Green did have a couple of big catches on scoring drives, and finished with a modest five catches for 61 yards.
Kyle Arrington allowed all five passes thrown his way to be completed, and he and the rest of the defense weren’t set when Dalton made the throw of the game, completing a 28-yard fade to Marvin Jones on third and 15 from the Bengals’ 2-yard line.
Special teams . . .
■ Some bad decisions by the kick returners: Leon Washington should have taken a knee on the opening kickoff (he injured his ankle on the play, too); Julian Edelman shouldn’t field a punt on the 4-yard line; and Edelman also should have let a punt bounce instead of fielding it on the fly and subsequently fumbling.
■ Awesome game by the punters. Ryan Allen had a net of 42 yards on eight punts, including three downed inside the 10. The Bengals’ Kevin Huber had a more modest 38.7-yard net average, but his punt in the pouring rain in the final seconds of the fourth quarter traveled 70 yards in the air.
Game balls . . .
■ LB Brandon Spikes: His agent will use this game as Exhibit A when negotiating for a new contract this offseason.
■ QB Andy Dalton: Showed some guts in pulling out the win after taking a lot of heat from his own fans.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin