The Patriots travel to Cincinnati this weekend for an afternoon meeting with the unbeaten Bengals. The rehabbed Carson Palmer and his powder keg of offensive weapons are going to come out swinging on their home turf, Paul Brown Stadium, so the Patriots are going to need to have their heads on straight and their chin straps buttoned up. Cincy does have some weak points in their team and master strategist Bill Belichick is certainly going to take advantage of every one he can find. Here are five things the Patriots need to do to escape the Bengals pen with a win.
Run. Run. Run.
Coach Belichick said this week that he doesn't see the point of beating their heads against the wall if the Bengals focus on stopping the run and are successful, but the running back tandem ofLaurence Maroney andCorey Dillon was a clock-killer until the Broncos game, where Dillon saw limited carries as the result of a shoulder injury. Dillon was at practice all week and isn't listed on the injury report. He's been good about not having anything to prove this season, but he may want to make a statement against his old team. He hasn't commented all week. The Broncos effectively shut down the ground attacks of the rookie, Maroney, limiting him to 18 yards on 12 carries. The Bengals defense will be looking to repeat that feat, but they don't have the speed up front that Denver does. With Dillon in the game, the Patriots offensive ship could float on a more even keel, balancing their running and passing attacks and making longer drives more probable. The Patriots need to eat up time in this game and keep Palmer off the field since he and the Bengals can pounce on offensive opportunities with frightening quickness.
Keep working toward a consistent passing gameIf the Bengals do make it a point to attack the run, the Patriots should be able to soften the blitz by throwing the ball. They haven't found a speedy downfield pass catcher to fill the role left by Branch, but one guy who looks well suited is Doug Gabriel. He came in late in the Broncos game last week, and although all his passes came in the fourth quarter, he still managed to lead the team in receptions and passing yards. He's still listed as "Probable" with a hamstring injury, but he's been in the system a few weeks now and has hopefully built enough chemistry with Brady and picked up enough of the playbook to be a factor. Rookie Chad Jackson made a pair of solid catches against the Jets, including a 13-yard touchdown grab from Tom Brady. He's been plagued by a hamstring injury since before training camp and was inactive against the Broncos, but if he's in, he could break out and live up to the hype againstDeltha O'neal and the Bengals secondary. Ben Watson could also be in for a good game with the Bengals linebacking corps seeing some rollover. Odell Thurman is out for the year due to off the field antics and David Pollack has been out with injuries leaving rookies to fill in. If Brady can link pass completions like he did in the beginning of the fourth quarter last week, he could put the Bengals defense on its heels.
Play smart and don't give them opportunitiesThis is a department the Bengals excel in both offensively and defensively, so if there's any time for the Patriots to play smart, it's now. Cincinnati finished 28th out of the 32 NFL teams in total defense last year and is currently 16th. However, they led the league in turnover differential last year at plus-25, recording 31 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries. Coming into the game, the Bengals 11 takeaways are tied for first in the league. Brady will have to play smart and the receivers will need to fight hard for the ball in order to prevent big turnovers. Big plays are a big factor for the Bengals offense as well. Belichick talked this week about how Cincy's wideouts can make big plays on short passes as well as the long ones Palmer is capable of throwing. The Patriots defensive backs will need to play big to prevent the Bengals sizable receivers from beating them in the air – they thrive on big passing plays. The Pats defense will need to keep down-and-distance in mind to avoid being spread too thin. Rudi Johnson will be pounding the ball up the middle to keep the Patriots from playing the perimeter on every down. Despite their propensity to look for big plays, the Bengals have the fifth best third down efficiency in the AFC right now. If they want stop the Bengals explosive offense they need to force Palmer to put together 10 or 12-play drives. This will increase the likelihood for turnovers and help with field position, but preventing big plays and making the Bengals fight for what they get is the best way to shut them down.
Pressure Carson Palmer
Never celebrated for his mobility in or out of the pocket, Palmer is still nursing his reconstructed knee. It hasn't affected his passing game much, but pressuring him is the best way to keep the ball away from receivers like Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Chris Henry. Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said this week that Palmer's best quality is his ability to read the defense. If he's right, the best way to hurt the Bengals is to hurry Palmer's reads. The Pats will want to disrupt his release as much as possible too, since his arm is strong enough to throw down field even when he's getting tugged. For all his ability and praise, Palmer has been shakable so far this season, giving up two interceptions in each of his last two games. He's also been sacked 10 times in the last two weeks. His line isn't weak, per say, but it's been having trouble executing and the Patriots front seven should be able to cut drives short by getting penetration assuming their timing is good. Palmer led the Bengals to an 11-5 record and the team's first division title in 15 years last season. He's off to another 3-0 start this season and will be looking to knock off the Patriots. Keeping him on his toes and moving around will help the Pats make sure that doesn't happen.
Capitalize on big opportunities
The Patriots will need things to go their way in this game to beat the undefeated Bengals. Part of that means making the most of opportunities presented to them. The Patriots one turnover is tied for last in the league entering this game. It came when Tedy Bruschi intercepted a Chad Pennington pass to ice the Jets game. Still, the Patriots have no points on takeaways going into Week 4, and those are just the kind of points that could take momentum away from the Bengals. Beating them at their own game not only seems like the best way to break them, it could also provide a morale boost for the Patriots secondary. The risk is that the Patriots defense could get out of position trying to force interceptions, and Harrison spoke about being patient and recognizing opportunities this week. Turnovers on fumbles and Palmer strip-sacks could provide similar momentum and aren't unthinkable given the Bengals have allowed 2 turnovers on fumbles this season. Big opportunities can also come on offense. There have been a number of dropped balls on long passes from Brady this season. Moreover, rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski has had two field goal attempts in a row blocked coming into this game. Getting points on the board is the only way to win a game, no matter how well the defense is playing. Brady's longest pass of the season so far was only 34 yards (Benjamin Watson against the Bills). Big passing plays could release some of the pressure on the Patriots running backs as well and allow Maroney to beat his season-long 27-yard carry against the Bills.
Running back Corey Dillon spent the first seven years of his career playing for the Bengals and in that time came to own or share 18 Bengals franchise records. … Bengals defensive tackle Sam Adams is the son of former Patriots offensive lineman Sam Adams, who played for New England from 1972-1980. … Quarterback Matt Cassel served as the backup to Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer at Southern Cal, where they were also roommates. … Offensive tackle Matt Light was born and raised in Greenville, Ohio, about 90 miles north of Cincinnati. … Linebacker Mike Vrabel was born in Akron, Ohio and attended Ohio State. … Defensive lineman Mike Wright was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and attended the University of Cincinnati. … Running back Heath Evans and Bengals running back Rudi Johnson were teammates at Auburn in 2000. Evans served as lead blocker as Johnson earned SEC player of the year honors that season. … Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain played on the same defensive unit as Bengals cornerback Deltha O'Neal at the University of California. … Wide receiver Reche Caldwell and Bengals cornerback Keiwan Ratliff were teammates at the University of Florida from 2000-2001. … Running back Kevin Faulk and Bengals cornerback Tory James were teammates at Louisiana State in 1995. … Cincinnati defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan was originally hired by Bill Belichick as a quality control coach for the Cleveland Browns in 1994. … Patriots quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels was born and raised in Canton, Ohio. … Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees is a native of Dunkirk, Ohio and is a graduate of Bowling Green State University. He has also been a defensive coordinator at Miami (Ohio) and the University of Toledo.